Mark D. Diehl writes novels about power dynamics and the way people and organizations influence each other. He believes that obedience and conformity are becoming humanity’s most important survival skills, and that we are thus evolving into a corporate species.

Diehl has: been homeless in Japan, practiced law with a major multinational firm in Chicago, studied in Singapore, fled South Korea as a fugitive, and been stranded in Hong Kong.

After spending most of his youth running around with hoods and thugs, he eventually earned his doctorate in law at the University of Iowa and did graduate work in creative writing at the University of Chicago. He currently lives and writes in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.






1.  Background of the book:


“Seventeen” is set in the Midwestern United States in the not too distant future. Civilization has evolved to a point where corporations own and control everything on Earth. If you want to survive, you’ve got to have something the corporations want, but what do you give them when they’ve taken all but your soul?


As the earth’s supply of raw materials dwindled to nothing, corporations were able to corner every market, all around the world. They used this unprecedented power to gradually replace government as the pinnacle of human power. Like governments, corporations are immortal and soulless. Unlike governments, corporations act solely to benefit their own bottom lines. As such, where democratically elected governments ruled by mandate of the people, the new corporate power structure relies solely upon the power of ownership. Government has been reduced to the role of corporate enforcer, though all corporations also have their own “Unnamed Executives” for the dirtier parts of corporate warfare.


To remain efficient in spite of deepening shortages, corporate culture demanded that society be reshaped into a rigid hierarchy. Now there are seventeen billion people on the planet, each with nothing to trade but total obedience to the organization. At the bottom of the corporate hierarchy are perfectly compliant “brain trust” employees, who are kept alive but unconscious for hundreds of years after natural deaths would have occurred, with their brains processing information as parts of enormous data banks. They outnumber the conscious “ambulatory” workers by a wide margin.


The ecosystem has been destroyed, and because so many toxic plant varieties developed with irrepressibly infectious genes in the early days of genetic engineering, all plants have been declared illegal. Nearly every product on Earth is made from secretions of patented, genetically modified bacteria, with each purchase debited from corporate accounts at the point of sale. Medicines, too, are synthesized from various strains of bacteria, with unseen doctors debiting accounts as their computers authorize prescriptions for their roughly 30,000 patients each.


Eadie, a nineteen year-old waitress in one of the synthetic-food diners owned by a gargantuan organization, brings the society’s brutal control mechanisms into play against her when she intervenes in a struggle on behalf of a bedraggled alcoholic known as the Prophet. He predicts she will lead a revolution, but how is that possible when she lacks the power to change even her own miserable situation?


Street drugs, too, are now made from engineered bacteria. Brian, a heroin dealer, is dosed with an unknown substance produced by an untested strain and runs off into the night, eventually seeking help that brings him into contact with Eadie and her followers. His herbalist, Dok, can’t tell if Brian’s condition is a case of undifferentiated schizophrenia or some new kind of brain damage, but Brian now slips in and out of periods where he believes he is a samurai from 1490. When Brian attempts to return to his life as a dealer, the samurai takes over and runs him back to serve “General Eadie.” When Brian attempts yet again to reclaim his life, he is kidnapped into a growing army of drug addicts known everywhere simply as the Fiends.


Though Eadie comes to believe that she was indeed intended for a greater purpose, she finds herself a destitute outcast, forced into hiding by the powerful enemies she has made.  She must rely on the resourcefulness of the followers she has unwittingly attracted as the only means of advancing her cause.  In order to achieve her destiny in a world run by brutal, ultra-hierarchical corporations, her own primitive organization will have to run just as tightly and have equally severe consequences for disobedience.



2.  Balancing life and writing:


I’m terrible at balancing life and writing. This book has been an obsession for many years. Much of the first draft was written in brief but intense sessions between 4:00 and 5:00 each workday morning while I was an attorney with a major multinational law firm. There were no hours to spare, and yet the book wouldn’t leave me alone. Eventually I was admitted to a two-year graduate program at the University of Chicago, and I wrote my other novel, “Vida Nocturna,” as my project there. I decided to save the final “Seventeen” edit for later, because I hoped to learn enough to truly do it justice … and also because I couldn’t bear to subject it to a workshop. The words are not precious to me, but the ideas certainly are.


Now I live here in Maine, writing constantly. I feel a very real and terrible pressure to share what I’ve seen, to help people recognize that uniqueness and individual free will are being purged from society and, subsequently, from the human gene pool. Our species is losing everything that is special about it as our institutions dehumanize us.  Watching this happen while I’m doing ordinary, day-to-day stuff is like trying to complete household chores, when I know that the house is on fire. Only in this case, it’s all of humanity, the whole world, distracted by made-up little issues designed to divide us while the entire planet is stolen from under our feet.


Fortunately, I have a forgiving wife and an understanding daughter. The daughter, twelve, is easy to bribe with a quick visit to the ice cream shop down the street, though she does often have to listen to me working out some of these ideas while we drip sugary glop all over my car. As for my wife, I don’t need to bribe her or make deals. She supports me and believes in me, and I’m incredibly lucky to have her as my partner in life.



3.  Where do ideas come from?


I’m fascinated with power dynamics. Why is one person able to make another do things?


I started thinking about this book while living in Asia, where I spent my first few years after college. People in the West get Asia all wrong. We find their cultures stifling and assume it’s because they’re somehow behind us, culturally, that they just haven’t learned how to be as free as we are.


We need to stop thinking of advancement in terms of economics alone. Yes, the West was the first to experience the Industrial Revolution, and that put us “ahead” of Asia for a little while economically. But that would only put them “behind” us if we could expect to go on digging up resources forever. Asia, centuries ago, had already adapted successfully to a crowded existence with few resources. They learned to do more with less, share things more equally, and cooperate with each other more effectively than any other part of the world has yet managed. This end result was accomplished in part through the development of strict and unforgiving hierarchies based upon unquestioning obedience.


I saw many examples of forced efficiency in Japan. What a powerful kick to the company’s bottom line it must be to have employees who head home completely exhausted at 1:45 in the morning, but who are back in the office and ready to work by 7:00, every day of the week.


The culture in Singapore was equally as oppressive and rigid. The act of selling something as harmless as chewing gum was a crime punishable with a $500 fine. I remember thinking, as I looked up at a camera that had just caught me jaywalking, “They have created a society where the only thing you’re allowed to do is work and accumulate money.” Now every country in the civilized world is tightening security, excusing invasive surveillance, jacking up fines for petty crimes and building more prisons.


It was the most unsettling realization of my life: Asia is not our past; it is our future.


I came back to the United States and attended law school. I eventually ended up working as an attorney with a major multinational law firm in Chicago, representing giant corporations that were suing other giant corporations. I saw the scale of it all, the scope of the league in which they played, and I realized that individuals, and even smaller law firms, couldn’t compete in the modern justice system. As I practiced, I watched the legal climate slowly develop toward greater and greater corporate power. It’s one thing to say that money buys justice in America, but quite another to see it firsthand. Litigation has become little more than a contest in which adversaries strive to outspend each other, and the merits of any particular case are completely inconsequential. My experience also convinced me that success within the modern corporate world depends mostly upon one’s willingness to conform and to submit to hierarchy, just as it did under emperors and Communist regimes.


Corporations now control nearly all the world’s natural resources and nearly all of its governments. That’s not just in the future world of “Seventeen.” That’s right now, today. As resources become scarcer their power will grow, corporate culture will permeate modern civilization, and compliance with hierarchy will be acknowledged as our most important survival skill. The adjustments the world will make as it proceeds toward its corporate future will look a lot like events from Asia’s past.


Once they’ve considered this idea, perhaps people reading this will be able to put it aside and move on with their lives. I wasn’t able to do that. I tried to work on fixing it, even running for Senate at one point, but I found that the American people have been so manipulated by the two corporate parties that they can’t see the country (and the world) being sold out from under them.



4.   Advice for writers:


If you’re going to write, have something to say. I can respect the drive to produce beautiful prose, but there has to be something to it beyond the actual words on the page. Give me, as a reader, a glimpse at something you understand about the world that I might not, yet.


In my own writing, I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Nobody has all the answers. But I hope that my unique set of experiences and observations can start a kind of internal dialogue for readers, inviting them to consider these things that have become such all-consuming concerns for me. As a reader, I look for similar invitations to examine and think.


We all have unique experiences and points of view, but corporate publishing has been squelching distinct voices for decades as it chased the market. Remember, publishers do not exist to produce “good” books. The only thing that matters is whether the book is a good investment; i.e. will it have sales to justify the cost of producing it? The safest investment is the one that has been produced before and proven successful.


Look at the “Twilight” series. Vampires sell. Romance is half of the fiction market. Put them together, you’ve got vampires in love: a totally predictable sale, whether the actual story is good or not, whether the writing is decent or not. Suddenly every publisher was racing to push out another series about vampires in love, and agents were telling authors to write this kind of story to gain representation.


Now the market-chasing publishing companies are finally being held accountable for pushing this stuff on us. The rise of independent publishing is sounding the death knell for the giants and their death spirals of creativity, allowing new voices to reach the public like never before. Don’t fear your own voice! Let it out!



5.  Writing tips:


I think working with the right editor is crucial.


I just came from the optometrist today, where I got a prescription for glasses. He explained that while light enters everyone’s eyes in the same way, many times the eyeball’s length is a little off. The image focuses a little ahead or a little behind the ideal place, and so the image appears blurry.


I think people vary in another kind of focal length, too; one dealing with the way we pay attention to the world, not with our eyes so much as with our minds. Some people have extremely fine mental focus, addressing details in all aspects of their lives that others would find too minuscule to bother about. Some have a wide focus, taking in huge, panoramic scenes, but stumble over anything close. Just as people can be nearsighted or farsighted in their vision, they can also be nearsighted or farsighted in the way they pay attention to the world around them.


Say we lived in a primitive tribe, and there were people with all different kinds of eyes. The people who were extremely nearsighted might do more of the sewing, and less of the hunting, which would result in neater stitches and fewer tribe members dying from poorly aimed spears. Those who were extremely farsighted might do more of the hunting but avoid cooking because of their tendency to stumble into the fire. Working together, the tribe could take advantage of the range of vision of its members, even when some of those members would have been rendered incapable of survival on their own.


That’s where the right editor comes in. Editors, focused on the detailed stitching of the writing, can make it tight wherever you missed as you were hunting the story across its wide arc. A good editor can help bring your story into focus for people with a wider range of mental focal lengths. Be prepared to expend some effort in searching for the right person, though. You want to work with someone who not only has skill with the fine points of English, but who also understands your vision for the book, so that every change she recommends stays true to it.



6.   Character creation:


Creating believable characters was quite challenging in “Seventeen.” Everyone lives right on that edge, with people all around them constantly being eliminated from the gene pool for even the slightest demonstration of disobedience. I had to take each one as far as I could from total conformity, but still keep it believable that they’d exist in this world at all.


Kel was actually the easiest character to work with. He was born in the sprawling, ever-worsening, non-corporate ghetto, and has spent his entire life struggling for survival. He knows nothing but how to look out for himself and he expects nothing but an eventual violent death. Trickier were characters like Eadie, who lives in the ghetto but works on the fringes of corporate life, and Lawrence, who might have faked it and lived to reproduce if he hadn’t felt compelled to do the right thing.


Old Fart was half figured out when I began with him, since I, myself, had lived in the stifling high-rise office world. I remember one time, shuffling along through some exit tunnel from the train with hundreds of others just like me, when my eyes fixed on a woman farther ahead of me. She was maybe in her late fifties, sort of bookish-looking, tired. And as I watched it seemed a vapor arose from her, and formed itself into a vaguely human shape, floating at the top of the tunnel. It shook its head at us and disappeared into an air duct. Of course I’d just imagined it, but I remember thinking to myself, “So what if it really happened? Who would I tell? Who would care? Souls must be lost in this tube every day.”



7.  Researching tips:   


Be flexible about what you find when you’re doing research. You might have created a story that is unsupported by what you have discovered. Change your book, not the rest of the universe! Don’t try to cram the facts into your story’s framework, or make stupid assumptions about what the real situation is and hope nobody knows better.


Instead, find out as much as you can, and write the story around what’s actually known. This is one place where you have to balance creativity with truth. It’s harder to write the story around real facts than it is to just make up a bunch of crap so it all fits together, but that’s the kind of creative stretch you have to do in order to write something good. If your story takes place in a world readers know, don’t alienate those readers by writing things that don’t fit there. If your story takes place in a different environment, like another planet or an alternate version of ours, you have to learn about things that can serve as a bridge between the readers’ experience and the adventure of your book. Make sure the elements that are supposed to be consistent between the readers’ world and the world you’ve created are accurate.


For “Seventeen,” I researched chemical analysis and specific gravity, mind control techniques in prison camps, genetic engineering, ritualistic suicides, medical treatments, and more. I took great pains to educate myself about anything that went into the book, so that readers would get a clear and accurate picture of whatever was happening in each scene. As a result, I feel confident in presenting “Seventeen” as a realistic depiction of what can (or will) happen in the future.



8.  Five musts every story in your genre should have:


A.  If you’re writing a story about individuals struggling against oppression, you need to have more than just those people and an oppressive government. We’ve learned too much since 1948 for anyone to find a story like that realistic anymore. Concentrated power is as dangerous as ever, but now that power is held by multinational corporations acting THROUGH government.


B.  You need outlier characters who struggle against the collective society, but you also have to make sure they don’t appear to be part of the norm in that culture. Without these characters, the book would be boring and tedious, as readers simply followed along with everyone doing what they’re told, when they’re told to do it. If your independent characters don’t seem rare enough, though, your readers will miss out on the feeling of stifling conformity that will clearly be the backdrop of our corporate future.


C.  Accept that the world is running out of resources. If you have a book set in the future where average people are still driving cars, eating food grown on farms, and drinking clean water from the tap, your world is not believable. The environment is being destroyed, as well. If you set your futuristic story in a world where people can breathe the air or walk in the rain without consequences, your world is not believable.


D.  Do not make the mistake of assuming the West is ahead of the rest of the world because our culture gives us “freedom.” We do not have an economic advantage because we are free. We are free because we have an economic advantage. The liberty we have now is a lingering effect of the temporary bulge in the upper class that resulted from the Industrial Revolution, which gave ordinary citizens more power in society than ever before. As the world’s resources are depleted, the middle class will disappear again. What we think of as freedom will be revealed as fleeting economic power and will vanish along with it. The future is not one of personal liberty for everyone around the world; it is a global society of suffocating corporate compliance.


E.  Remember that a “more advanced” society is not necessarily one in which you would prefer to live. The term means only that the society is better adapted to the conditions that will be more prevalent in the future. Our descendants will face life on a planet whose resources have been plundered; theirs will be a world with a ruined ecosystem, toxic air and water, and extreme disparity of wealth and power. Why would anyone think that’s not going to be awful?



9.  Ten things most people don’t know about you:


A.  I’m from Iowa City, Iowa, which is home to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and thus a kind of Mecca for writers. After growing up around all these freaky people scribbling in coffee shops, I swore off writing and promised myself I wouldn’t let that happen to me. I wouldn’t have, either, except that I just felt compelled. I ended up at the University of Chicago, in a graduate program for creative writing, ending up a freaky scribbler, after all.


B.  I grew up alone with my crazy mom. My dad was remarried in another town with a family of his own, and I had no siblings. My early academic performance reflected my unstable home life, such that even though my standard test scores were in the top percentile every year, I flunked half of 7th grade and half of 9th grade for failure to turn in homework.


C.  I was once chased out of South Korea by my (Korean) girlfriend’s powerful family and the police. Her parents were suspicious of her story one day and had someone follow her, thus learning that she was dating me. Later that evening she found herself in a locked room, with her parents telling her through the door that they planned to arrange a marriage to the first Korean they could find in order to save the family name. She escaped at three in the morning and made it to my place by four, but the police were involved and it wouldn’t be long until they found us. We had no choice but to try and flee the country, but we didn’t have time to wait for the United States to issue her a visa. Within twenty-four hours, we had to be in some yet-unknown third country. (This true story will soon be a book, so stay tuned!)


D.  I ended up in law school by default. My wife and I arrived in my hometown of Iowa City with less than ten dollars between us. We realized that the university system would qualify us for student loans, university housing, and other benefits, so we applied to graduate school right away. I applied concurrently to the University of Iowa College of Law, College of Dentistry, and College of Business (MBA) programs, planning to go wherever I was accepted. I got into all three, and then I thought I could be the first guy ever to have attended all three programs simultaneously, but the dental school refused. The law school and the MBA program had a joint degree deal, but the first hour of orientation at the business school had us building towers out of note cards and learning to cooperate. I split for the law school, where at least I didn’t have to pretend to like everyone.


E.  I was once homeless in Japan for a few weeks.


F.  My favorite subject in law school was corporate law. I used to sit in lecture and daydream about all I could get away with if I had a corporation. Believe me, in skilled hands, a United States corporation is like a license to print money, a get out of jail free card, and a cloak of invisibility, all rolled up into a nice little package.


G.  I’m great at fixing broken things.  My father never taught me how to build a birdhouse or do handyman stuff like a lot of guys’ dads did. My skills are not conventional. But I have a knack for repairing objects and machines, using their original parts, making them at least function again without any new components and often without tools. I might bypass a broken switch so you have to plug in a lamp to turn it on, or fashion a dial from a piece of plastic from the radio’s side, but I will find a way to make it work.


H.  I was injured fighting a raccoon when I was four.


I.  I am a founding board member (1 of 3) of Think LOCAL! Community Networking, a non-profit organization which seeks to bring neighborhoods together and support small business. It is now a multi-state organization with over 1500 members. I also founded and currently lead a networking group for creative people in the Portland, Maine area called Loosely Affiliated Local Artists (“LALA”).


J.  I have adopted and spent years caring for rescued animals, mostly reptiles, which I believe are the most neglected of pets. Each type of reptile has its own needs for heat, humidity, water, diet, ultraviolet radiation, pH, substrate, and more, and two different types rarely can share the same habitat. People buy them because they’re small and cheap, not understanding that the animals will suffer without monitoring all the various inputs, or especially the fact that they grow and live a long time. A little green turtle you get for $10 at the pet store might soon grow to the size of a football and need a $200 tank, and many live for 40 years. A mature tortoise may be as large as a truck tire and have a lifespan of 80 years or more. The little tadpole you buy in a kit so your kid can watch its metamorphosis might grow to into a frog the size of a grapefruit and live 15 years, requiring a habitat with controlled humidity and live insects every day. Please tell your family and friends that reptiles deserve a healthy life like any other pet.



10.  Lessons I learned from my hero (heroine/villain):


I never had a hero.


Some guys say their dads are their heroes. I remember some lawyer at one of the firms I worked in had a picture of himself and all his brothers lined up with their dad, all holding fish they’d caught. It was behind him on the windowsill as he sat at his desk every day, and I wondered what that must feel like, to have a parent behind him like that.


I usually visited my father one weekend a month, and he usually worked at his orthodontic office on Saturdays and drove me home on Sundays. In my dad’s family, money was the religion, and they were fanatically devout. Every issue and problem had an easy, automatic solution: Work hard and make a lot of money. It was the only advice he ever gave me.


Of course, I learned from him without his having to teach me. I observed him, drowning out every moment of his life with a screaming television in the background, working around the clock as he saw patients in the daytime and worked their files through the night, always banking that money. I watched him go through sports cars and private airplanes, and observed him standing silently as his wife berated me in the cafeteria line for taking the roast beef instead of the chicken. I got to see Dad and his wife indignantly insist to the neighbors at one of their condos that their full-grown Rhodesian ridgeback, over two feet tall at the head, weighed twenty-five pounds, just like it had on the day they’d agreed to the covenant. The message I got didn’t have to be spoken to be understood: It doesn’t matter how you behave toward people who actually know you, as long as you surround yourself in the trappings of privilege.


Fortunately, I also observed that he had a pathetic life, and I had no desire to emulate any of that.



 11.   My take on critique groups:


If you’ve never done so, then you must at least once participate in a writing group, whether you do it as part of an academic program or find one in your community.


Yeah, yeah. They’re all going to be idiots. Your work will soar so high above them that all they’ll be able to do is blink at it and drool. If anything, they’ll screw it all up, squash the true genius they fail to see.


Okay, fine. Say all that’s true. Do it anyway.


You need to see your book through another reader’s eyes. Honest critiques can be brutal and horrible, but they make you learn how to create better images inside someone else’s head. You’re not a writer until you’ve had your brains repeatedly bashed out by an honest critique group, or at least an honest editor.



12. One of my own writing quirks:


I write constantly, filling up whatever little scraps of paper are handy when ideas come up. My office is full of stacks of notes on receipts, envelopes, the margins of junk mail, and, yes, even real sheets of notebook paper, scribbled all over with little arrows going from one thought to the next, numbers in the margins showing me where to start reading again. I’m trying to get better about it by keeping track of thoughts on the little note app on my phone, but when I’m focused on a particular thought I tend to just reach for whatever’s closest.



13. What kind of writer am I?


I would characterize myself as a Post-Objectivist fiction writer, the first and only, so far as I know. Objectivism was Ayn Rand’s philosophy, based on the idea that true morality came from individual pursuit of personal goals. She asserted, therefore, that the only system that could be truly moral was a laissez-faire capitalist one with full respect for individual rights. Ayn Rand was brilliant, but she didn’t have the vantage point we do now.


In Rand’s day, humanity was trying to figure out how much a role government should play in markets. It looked like the world was being unzipped and falling into halves. On one side were state-planned economies, with their collective farms and military parades. On the other was the capitalist model, with our sleek, efficient, market-driven economies.


Growing up in Russia, Rand had seen Communism first hand. She realized that giving the state so much control was stifling to individuals, and she showed in her books how state oppression could extinguish a society’s innovative abilities. When Communist societies began collapsing, it seemed to prove that Ayn Rand had called it: We had the better system, and it was better because it encouraged and rewarded the individual.


Here’s the thing, though:


Multinational corporations now dwarf most of the world’s governments, but we still treat them as if they’re individuals. Recent Supreme Court decisions have upheld corporate “human rights” like privacy and free speech, meaning, among other things, that they are protected from surprise safety inspections and they can spend unlimited sums to influence elections. They own most of the world’s available resources and are run for one purpose only: the generation of short-term profit. They demand efficiency, planning, and discipline, they reward unity and conformity, and they have even less respect for human uniqueness than their government counterparts. Big business is not an alternative to big government so much as it is the new totalitarian structure eclipsing it.


The truth is that BOTH models stifle the individual, either through the forced altruism of Communism or the cutthroat uniformity of corporatism. Step out of the party line, the Communists shut you out, just like corporations do to whistleblowers. What Ayn Rand thought was the antidote to Communism was just a different kind of poison. If either the government or big business is able to rule on behalf of itself, the individual is shut out. The so-called left and right wings are just flying us toward control by the same elites, either way. What we see now is that either side can be equally dehumanizing.


The only way free individuals have a chance is if they all decide to wake up and become aware. In order for unique, independent people to continue to exist, we must develop into an informed public with actual power and the desire to keep it.


Here’s the same idea, boiled down:

In the jungle, the biggest gorilla takes as much as he wants. It’s natural. Our problem is that through the creation of corporations and governments, we now have immortal gorillas who continue growing forever. Our situation is no longer natural.



14. Secrets about your genre:


What is my genre, really?


I believe I’m the first fiction writer to produce a truly Post-Objectivist work, but because I’m the first, there’s no subject heading for that.


I guess a lot of people would call it dystopian sci-fi, which works because it shares those characteristics with Orwell’s “1984,” but Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” had many of the same elements and it isn’t called either. I looked up some of the books I feel have similar characteristics. They’re called adventure stories, sci-fi, psychological fiction, didactic fiction, political fiction, dystopias, and more. The subject headings run through most of the fiction world, from individualism and egoism, to objectivity, to totalitarianism. For “Seventeen” in particular, there are also issues like genetic engineering and corporatism that would apply.


As such, I think the “secret” of my “genre” is this: Just write the story that fits the world you’re describing, and let the librarians worry about classifying it. If I’d tried to make the book fit neatly into a category, I would’ve limited my ability to tell the story as I felt it needed to be told.


15.  A day with Mark D. Diehl behind the scenes:


When I’m not immersed in a writing project or busy with family responsibilities, I spend quite a bit of time on social media. What’s important to me is connection with other people, intellectual ferment and the search for better understanding. The novel is by far the best means I’ve seen for effectively communicating complex ideas, but unfortunately social media have become a kind of substitute for many people, a way of connecting intellectually with other cognizant beings, but at a frighteningly shallow level.


Many people think I like to fight, because they see me arguing on Facebook or G+ and assume I’m doing so because it’s something I enjoy. In truth, I only argue when I feel an issue is just too important to let it be misunderstood, and for the duration of the dispute I wish I was doing something else. Still, I find myself arguing constantly.



16.   How I handled the research for the book (if applicable):


The premise of “Seventeen” is that, because of the way we live now, with bigger organizations being better able to provide insurance and other benefits and controlling an increasing share of the world’s resources, eventually non-corporate characteristics like individuality and creativity will be eliminated from the human genome.


That is, I believe we are evolving into a corporate species.


As I became increasingly obsessed with the idea, I followed whatever questions arose. Some I could just figure out, like the fact that Japan is clearly the world’s most corporate society. Corporations are at the heart of everything there. I studied some Japanese history, just trying to get a feel for how the culture developed over time, what made it the way it is.


I looked for other cultures that had similar trajectories, similar patterns of development, and I found some similarities in ancient Rome. I realized that there were patterns that endured, things that all of the world’s most efficient societies shared. It became clear that common to all was a rigid and often brutal hierarchy.


That made a certain degree of sense to me. Every army in the world became an extreme, top-down hierarchy in short order, because those that didn’t were wiped out by their neighbors, who through enforcement of blind obedience had transformed into more efficient killing machines. Murder has always been part of life among the humans, but organized, massive campaigns of murder are the result of mind control and a chain of command. True evil began when one man learned he could control the mind of another.


I saw that if I wanted to show how that trend is now continuing (i.e. how corporations and other entities are building militaristic hierarchies), I would need to write a book set in the future. I did research into food production and genetic engineering, to see how people would eat, and I discovered that it’s likely that all food will soon be engineered. That led me to think about other things that could come from biotech, like medicines and even tangible items like furniture. I read about biochemistry and decided that bacteria were the most likely sources of the future world’s food and medicine, and possibly for most everything else, because they’re easy to reprogram and have little else to them beyond protein manufacturing. Splice a few genes, a strain of bacteria starts producing a new substance, and the corporations profit from every bite you take, not by supplying you with the meal, but by owning your right to consume it.


From there I took the story step by step, imagining what would happen in a certain circumstance and then researching parts that I saw would change over time, then revising the original idea to match what the facts had helped me realize.



17.  If I’d never heard of me, would I read my book?


Yes. I love to read books that are thought provoking, that are entertaining and yet have meaning beyond the events and relationships that play out on the surface. I feel that “Seventeen” is not only a novel with a unique and engaging story, but one that addresses concepts that I find compelling, relevant, and important for everyone to consider. All over the world, societies are tightening down around us. What will life be like when survival depends upon having a corporate job, and working to accumulate money is the only thing the society allows anyone to do?



18.  What would I tell a new author?


I never set out to be an author. For a long time, I didn’t understand why anyone would choose to labor for years on projects that in all probability would never result in tangible rewards.


I planned to have a job, to do “real” work for real pay and come home to my family,  but I found it wasn’t that simple. I kept getting ideas at all hours that refused to let me move on with my life until I had worked them out on paper. Maybe I was at the law firm, working on some huge case, maybe I had been sound asleep at home in the middle of the night, or driving on the highway or taking a shower. It didn’t matter. I found it impossible to function until the idea had been fully explored and mapped out, and, usually, connected to other ideas that had similarly forced their way to the front of my consciousness.


I don’t write so I can have my picture on the back cover or travel around signing books. I do it because I feel an absolute compulsion to share these thoughts with other people, to connect with anyone and everyone who might understand. I write because I cannot stop.


My advice to a new author, then, is that there’s really only one good reason to write: because the compulsion to share ideas is simply too powerful to let you live any other way. Only if you are absolutely driven to do it – regardless of the personal cost or the potential benefits to the normal life you have to abandon as you spend hour after hour locked away at your desk – should you attempt to put out a novel. It isn’t a wise thing to choose as a hobby; the effort and anguish are likely to outweigh the rewards, and without serious dedication, you are likely to wind up with a mediocre product. If you can do something else, do that instead. Get out and enjoy life, spend time with friends and family, see the world. Communicate with others in real time, instead of pouring yourself into a book that you hope to share with an ever-shrinking population of readers.



19.  As an author, what scares me the most?


Actually, what used to scare me most about the writing profession isn’t necessarily true anymore.


When I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago, we had industry professionals coming in to tell us about getting published. I met agents and publishers, and we all went through the process of submitting our work for practice. We were encouraged to do our own research to find agents and publishers who had handled books like ours in the past, since they would be best able to sell our work to the big publishing companies.


What I discovered was that publishers don’t care how good your book is. Publishing houses are for-profit corporations. This means they want only one thing: a predictable seller, so they can tell their shareholders they made a safe bet. You might think that a good book would be the same as a predictable seller, but it’s not. A book is a predictable sale when it very closely resembles one that sold well before, varying just enough from the original to avoid copyright violations. Publishers, chasing the market, were telling agents what kinds of books they would consider, and agents were telling authors what to write if they wanted to be represented.


The more I understood the publishing industry, the clearer it became: I was watching a death spiral of creativity. Books are not commodities, they are ideas; no company that analyzes new work as it would soybean futures or pork bellies can accept a book with a truly original, unproven premise.


Print-on-demand and e-book formats now let authors take their message directly to readers without subjecting it to all that, which is great, mostly. However, it does mean that anyone who wants to produce a book will do so, regardless of its quality. Right now, some people still believe we need big publishers for their alleged “screening function,” but in truth this service is now being performed much more effectively by bloggers and their readers. Books now reach the public without corporations excluding the most original ideas, and dedicated readers in the blogosphere pick the diamonds from the dirt.


Here’s the future of publishing: The big publishers will survive these changes by relying on royalties from the huge back catalogs they’ve assembled over the past hundred years. If they are then able to provide any value to the marketplace at all, it will be through their marketing expertise and their distribution networks. That is, authors will gain control over what they’re producing, and will only be picked up by the major publishers once they’ve proven themselves to have a market.


There has never been a better time for new and original ideas to become books. Authors are connecting with readers through blogs and websites and other social media, and that’s what’s making the market work. The risk is on the author, now, not the publisher, so there’s little money up front but there’s no market-chasing censorship, either.  In the cases where an idea resonates with a sizeable number of readers, the major publishers will come in and make a deal to market and distribute the book in exchange for a percentage of its profits. Ideas, as novels, are more accessible, because of the dialogue we’re creating through blogs like this.



 20.  Ideal writing space:


I think I’d do well in one of those old-fashioned bomb shelters from the 50’s, with the ladder built into the concrete wall and the hatch that latches from the inside by turning the little wheel. There would be no distractions, ample food, and even a sense of security. With an internet connection and a hot tub, and maybe a few decorating touches here and there, it’d be a highly productive space.






1. Do you ever wish you were someone else? Who?




We are here to be who we are. I think there’s something wrong with a society that is growing its people to be self-standardizing and conformist. My job, my duty (to the universe, to God, to whatever cosmic entity you like), is to experience life as myself.


Say you and I are friends. You see someone famous and decide you want to be him instead. Now there are two of that guy and none of you, so I’m robbed of the chance of ever truly knowing you.



2. What did you do on your last birthday?


It was the quietest birthday I’ve ever had, and I mean that in a very good way.


I have some (biologically) close relatives who suffer from personality disorders. Sometimes people refer to these types as “emotional vampires,” and I think that’s pretty accurate. They hypnotize you and wrestle for control of your mind, they feed off of your energy, and they leave you feeling dazed and helpless. Emotional vampires always go particularly crazy any time someone else becomes the center of attention, like at graduations, weddings, and also birthdays, so I grew up dreading holidays of any kind.


Two years ago, as my birthday approached, I was dealing with numerous crazy phone calls and other assaults on my consciousness each day, all from the same person. I did my best to carry on as usual, but I was constantly struggling to organize my thoughts, trying to come up with some means of defending myself against the onslaught of accusations and attempts at psychological blackmail. The day before my birthday, I was in the process of cleaning our aquarium with this storm going on in my head, and I accidentally flushed our family’s beloved pet frog. I felt terrible, and I realized it could have been much worse. That same level of distractedness might have caused a house fire or a car accident. I realized that the stress and disruption induced by this person’s behavior was dangerous to my family, and I ended the relationship.


I had considered it many times before, but the attacks were always very subtle, each one too small in itself to be the cause of ending a relationship. I was terribly unhappy and I dreaded contact from this person, but I thought I needed some big bang excuse to get out of it. Once it became clear that it wasn’t about any particular issue, but instead about the pattern of behavior I’d endured my whole life, I realized I didn’t need any argument, any big explosion, any excuse. I could just stop.


Last year was the first birthday I’d experienced when not just the actual day, but the weeks leading up to my birthday, were peaceful and drama-free. I spent the month of October bracing for an attack that never came, and when it passed without incident I felt like an expected hurricane had drifted back to sea.


THIS year, I’ll have plenty of cause to celebrate. My birthday – October 30, 2013 – also happens to be the release day for my book, “Seventeen!”



3. Do you have any tattoos?  Where? When did you get it/them? Where are they on your body?


In my late teens and early twenties, I was part of a community of Japanese friends living in Iowa City, Iowa. All my roommates were Japanese. I dated Japanese girls, learned to speak the language, rolled sushi, and basically lived as a great big, hairy Japanese guy.


That would’ve been the time to get a tattoo, probably, but tattoos meant something different to Japanese people, at least back then. They signified someone’s membership in their Mafia, the Yakuza. Rather than a medium for personal expression, tattoos served as a form of group identity, marks of ownership.


I know they don’t mean that here, and I certainly don’t think any of my tattooed friends are Yakuza. I love tattoos on other people, both as creative expressions of the wearer and as works of art in their own right. For me, personally, though, that association is a little too deep.



4. What are you working on right now?


My “Seventeen” series is a collection of adventures that together trace humanity’s evolution into a corporate species. It’s a huge arc, so I think my answer to that question for a long time will be: “I’m working on the next book in the ‘Seventeen’ series.”



5. What do you think you’re really good at?


In at least a couple of instances, I’ve proven to be really good at predicting major geopolitical and economic events. As a college freshman in 1988, I wrote a paper I called “Warm Up to the Cold War,” which predicted a rapid end to the cold war, as the West would soon force economic collapse upon the Soviets by outspending them. A few months later, the Berlin Wall came down. In law school, I wrote a paper called, “How to Make Yourself Obscenely Wealthy by Collapsing the Economy of Your Choice and Still be Home in Time for Dinner.” In it, I invented a way for someone to take advantage of the fact that Asian countries had made themselves vulnerable by keeping their currencies devalued, thereby getting rich through arbitrage. By the next school year, Thailand had been the first to fall in what became the Asian Currency Crisis of 1997, with pundits blaming arbitrageurs.


Now I’ve written a sci-fi book called “Seventeen.” I think we should all hope that I’m no longer good at predicting the future.


6. What do you think you’re really bad at?


This is always a tough question to answer. I turned to my wife, Jennifer, and daughter, Myra, for help. “You’re not organized,” said Jennifer. “You’re really bad at using a calendar, Dad, like maybe the worst ever in the world,” Myra said. “You don’t put things away,” Jennifer said. “OOH!” Jennifer said. “You have this weird thing where you can’t see things that need to be done and just do them!”


At that point I disqualified my wife and daughter from helping to answer the question because of their obvious bias and overzealousness.



7. Is your life anything like it was two years ago?


From outward appearances, it would seem so. I still live in the same house, drive the same car, and spend most of my time with my wife and daughter, just like two years ago. But exactly two years ago, I cut ties with a miserable person – the last of far too many miserable people – who had emotionally abused me for my entire life. Without all that craziness, everything is brighter and better and more wonderful. I hope those people figure themselves out and make some changes, and I feel terrible for having to leave them when they’ve driven so many others out of their lives, but I need to live my own life.





9. Do you have any fears or phobias?


Yes. I fear groupism, conformism, and mind control. I fear the pattern that I see so clearly developing, not just in the United States, but all around the world these days. Everyone is trying hard to conform, to adapt, to meet arbitrarily assigned expectations. People are keeping their heads down, fearful, hiding in their uniformity like a school of fish. I’m terrified of the world we seem to be building, where all the richness and wonder of our diversity is mowed flat like our already uniform suburbia of today.


I’m frightened by the possibility of total ecological collapse and the starvation that would come with it. And I am very, very scared by the increasing desperation I see in those who already have too much power to gain more and more.




12. What is your favorite quote and why?


My friend back in Iowa, whom I call “Physics,” is an incredibly gifted mathematician and engineer. His father, though, had some kind of mental disability. The movie “Forrest Gump” reminded me a lot of his dad, because both he and Forrest interpreted the world in stunningly simple terms.


Physics’ dad rarely gave advice, and when he did it was almost always about totally obvious things, like “If you see a stop sign you have to stop!” One time, though, he offered up his version of the adage “Be careful who your friends are,” and it was so perfect I never forgot it.


“If you’re walking down the street with a bunch of clowns, everybody’s going to point and say ‘Look at all those clowns.’ They never say ‘Look at all those clowns and that one normal guy.’”



16. What is your favorite television show?


Back in the ‘90s, Mike Judge did a cartoon on MTV called “Daria,” that went for five seasons. My daughter and I watched every episode together, and I recommend the experience to anyone with a girl in middle school. Daria is a teenager attending a typical American high school. She’s smart and witty, but high school forces her into an artificial hierarchy where sports, fashion, and other conformist pursuits determine one’s position. Episode by episode, she’s confronted by pressures that reduce her peers to caricatures but she survives (though does not necessarily thrive – it is high school, after all), wrapped in a protective bubble of dry sarcasm.


Mike Judge was also the guy who did “Beavis and Butthead,” which I think is one of the most underappreciated shows ever. On the surface, it’s about two high school freshmen whose incredible stupidity gets them into trouble, but there’s another, more substantial story beneath. Beavis and Butthead don’t seem to have any responsible adults around them at all. They’ve spent their entire lives in front of a television, and we shouldn’t be surprised that shallow consumerism has become their only value. Their adventures amount to little more than searching for whatever’s “cool” while avoiding all that “sucks,” and always leave them as empty as they were when they started, albeit usually somewhat more physically damaged. It does feel rather satisfying to watch them meet hilarious ends they’ve brought upon themselves, but there’s a measure of sadness, a sense of waste to the show that tends to stick with you.





17. What is something you’ve lied about?


Jennifer and I were in Hong Kong, standing at the bulletproof glass window of the immigration authority. We’d just gotten married the day before, and had brought the marriage certificate to ask for a six month extension of our tourist visas to “extend our honeymoon.”


In truth, we couldn’t return to Korea because her influential parents had gotten South Korean authorities (cops, etc.) involved in trying to recapture her before she could flee the country with me. We couldn’t go to the U.S. because she had to get a visa from Korea, and we planned to look for illegal jobs in Hong Kong in order to keep from starving.


The woman looked up from the documents. “Why do you want to stay so long in Hong Kong?” she asked.


“We like it here,” I said.



18. Who is the last person you hugged?


My daughter, Myra.



19. What is the story of your first kiss?


The first time I kissed my wife Jennifer was when we started dating in South Korea. Almost everywhere we went, we were stared at and harassed for being an interracial couple. People called her a whore, and she wouldn’t tell me about it for fear that I would attack them and get deported. The only place we could be free of it was along a little street of seedy bars across from the American military base, where almost all of the women in them were prostitutes. Our first kiss was in front of a roomful of people who must have assumed I was paying for the privilege.




20. Do you like kissing in public?


Not as a general habit. Truth told, I’ve had PTSD for much of my life and it makes me nervous to have my senses distracted like that in public. I consider myself to be quite friendly and I have a great time interacting with people, but I prefer handshake distance so I can see what’s going on. To me, kissing should be reserved for times when I can devote my full attention to it.



22. What kind of music you like?


The last two major concerts I’ve attended were both by Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. I saw “Dark Side of the Moon” in Chicago and “The Wall” in Boston. I can appreciate all kinds of music but my favorite type by far is anything dark and hypnotic that stands for something or makes a point. I can take one or the other. Bob Dylan makes a point and I love his work, but he’s about as hypnotic as a kazoo. Enigma makes trippy sounds but doesn’t say much. I’m hooked on lyrics, baby. Artfully tell me something real.



23. Do you like to dance?


I have had very little experience with dancing. The few times I have danced have been fun, though.



24. Can you describe your dream home?


I had girlfriends in the past who would talk about what kind of house they wanted to live in, what it’d look like, what amenities it would have. I don’t care about that stuff so much. Maybe I’ve been in too many places.


I’ve lived for periods of years in hostile and foreign environments where people avoided me when I was alone and actively harassed me when I was walking with a local woman. I’ve been surrounded by pathetic and condescending yuppies who took ridiculous pride in having successfully sold themselves to the highest bidder. I’ve slowly suffocated in communities where a culture of fear has made the people bow their heads and hide, abandoning the ability to question and reason.


The building isn’t important. My dream home is a community where people respect each other as individuals.




25. If you could be any character, from any literary work, who would you choose to be? Why?


I would choose to be Larry Darrell from “The Razor’s Edge,” by W. Somerset Maugham.


Most people would probably perceive little similarity between Larry and me. He comes across as almost Buddha-like, completely detached from material pursuits and perpetually calm. People seem to see me as an aggressive, restless go-getter, more like Howard Roark from “The Fountainhead.”


But to me, the two literary characters have something important in common. They both care only about what’s going on in their heads. Larry is driven by his intense desire to understand, so he is able to drift from one activity to another, studying, learning, and experiencing all he can. Roark, too, is compelled to act on what his own mind dictates, but his head functions differently. Roark is cursed with the need to create, and so he struggles through life much more actively than Larry.


A compulsion to create is a need to change the world, and the world always resists being changed. Larry had it comparatively easy.




26. What is the first curse word that comes to mind?  How often and why do you use it?


Once in high school, my girlfriend and her best friend decided they were going to fix their boyfriends’ bad habit of swearing, unbeknownst to us. There came a day when for some reason or another I uttered the word “shit.” She turned on me, instantly angry. “Shit, shit, shit! Is that your favorite word?” “No,” I said, bewildered. “’Fuck’ is my favorite word.”


I don’t use it all that often now. I don’t think I did in high school either, really. It’s still my favorite word, though.



27. How would you spend ten thousand bucks?


Assuming I was barred from doing something boring and responsible, I’d buy a motorcycle to replace the one I left behind in South Korea. I taught myself to ride there, and at the time, that country led the world in traffic accident fatalities. In Korea, as in much of Asia, mass times velocity equals right of way, and nobody bluffs. I had no safety course, took no test, and had no idea what I was doing, but I bought a bike for a big brick of cash and followed all the other motorcyclists, weaving between cars, passing on sidewalks, and flirting with death moment by moment.


Here in the States, I’d love a bike big enough to take on the highway, maybe for a book tour. This time around, I’ll take the safety course.



28. What are 5 things within touching distance?


If a guy friend had asked me this, it would be hard to resist answering with “Your mom.” Instead, I’ll list an “herbal” vaporizer, my eyeglasses in their original circa 1940s case, a DVD produced by a friend to whom I promised a review, my older-model iPhone, and my antique walnut roll-top desk which I restored and refinished myself.



32. What is your favorite Joke?


The classic:


Two boy scouts are hiking in the woods when they come upon a giant grizzly bear, starving from a long hibernation. The bear sits up, sniffing. It sees the scouts and begins lumbering over toward them, showing its teeth.


One scout sets down his pack and kicks off his hiking boots, taking out a pair of running shoes and lacing them up as fast as he can manage. The other scout freaks out. “Why are you doing that? You’re not going to outrun a hungry bear in the woods!”


“I don’t have to outrun the bear,” the first says, standing. “I just have to outrun you.”



33. Where do you get your best ideas?


My best ideas always come from observing something happening in the present, and then wondering what would be different if I were observing the same situation at some point in the future. Contemplating the current state of the world and trying to figure out what will happen next is like working on a puzzle, where I’m trying to assemble myriad little pieces from everything I experience and anticipate how the picture will grow and change. Where will our food come from? How will we travel? How will we work? I think about the restaurants I pass, the cars on the street, the office workers shuffling around between the buildings… even the simplest everyday things can provide inspiration.


Once I’ve come up with an idea about how things will eventually work differently, I start building on that vision. Once in a while that leads to a concept I find interesting or important enough to put into the book. It might be technology stuff, but more often I like to explore social, political, and economic conditions. How will people be educated in the future, for example, or be considered for job advancement? What will it be like to be poor in a world with no remaining natural resources? Or, for that matter, to be rich in a world like that?


I never know which idea will be one I can develop into something great, so I always stop whatever I’m doing and write them down to analyze later. I constantly interrupt everything to capture ideas, or to consolidate them into bigger ones. Writing is an obsession rooted in the ridiculous notion that ideas have value, and it has turned me into a hoarder of thoughts.





34. What do you do to relax?


“You refuse to relax, ever, Dad.” –Myra, my daughter, age 12




35. Do you write about what turns you on?


I find power dynamics mesmerizing, on a personal level and a cultural level, and that fact is clearly reflected in my work. How does someone control another person? Why does one submit to being controlled?


The function and sustainability of every society, institution and relationship in the world is based on a certain balance of power. We train our military recruits to automatically obey commands of their superiors. We advance workers not for the uniqueness of their perspective or their ability to innovate, but by their precision, their talent for doing exactly as they are told. An average day for anyone is full of little interactions where power is brought into play, from condo board meetings, to retail sales and ordering in restaurants, to obtaining the increasing mass of licenses and permits we need to carry anymore.


Authority, manifested through punishments and rewards, is an intriguing, powerful, and compelling thing. In the bedroom it can be magical, connecting minds and bodies and psyches with a level of intimacy impossible to achieve without that level of surrender. But to me, it seems the whole world is playing a sex game all the time. Unfortunately, when careers and livelihoods are at stake, the game loses its consensual playfulness.



36. If we were to come to your house for a meal, what would you give us to eat?


Almost everything we eat at home is organic, anymore. I used to not care so much. If something is “conventionally grown,” then it was sprayed with pesticide. Big deal, wash it off. So what if it was genetically modified to grow more seeds or resist drought, especially if my stomach will just break it all down anyway?


Then I found out that genetic engineering is doing more than that stuff. For example, many of these plants have been altered so that they produce their own pesticides. How do you wash that off? There’s even some indication that the new genes won’t stay where they’re put, migrating into cells in your gut bacteria or possibly even your own body, causing cells to function in unnatural and even dangerous ways. It could turn out that these new technologies are harmless, but at this point it’s untested science and I don’t want to be the lab rat.


Lately at home we’ve been making giant salads where we fry sausages in olive oil, slice them up to put into the salad, and then use the oil for an oil/vinegar dressing. We eat them while they’re still warm, and then we sit, full of sausage and grease, proud of ourselves for having eaten salad for dinner.




37. Are you a romantic?


Yes. I believe that overcoming difficulties to keep love strong and safe is one of our most sacred duties. True romance, to me, means caring for each other not out of a sense of duty or obligation, but because you value the other person so much. I think love is really an intense desire to understand each other, and as long as two people continue to strive toward a more perfect mutual understanding, they can grow ever closer.




38. Do you listen to music when you’re writing?


No. When I’m writing, I often have a bunch of different windows open on the computer, developing in each one a particular idea about the book. While I’m typing out one part of the story, I will get inspired about another one, so I switch to that other window and work the new thought into that already existing idea. I can bounce around like that, always working on the newest and most immediately interesting idea, for several hours at a time, and it usually results in something I like. Once the ideas are fully worked out, I weave them all together to make the story. Music gums up the works; I get stuck thinking about a song instead of having thoughts about the book trigger other thoughts and lead me to better stuff.




39. Do you ever read your stories out loud?


I don’t often read things aloud during the writing process, except when I’m unsure about a word choice or phrasing. I love to do public readings of my finished work, though. It’s an indescribable feeling, having a group of people come to connect with me about my ideas and my book, and to share their ideas with me.



40. What are your future ambitions?


I think I might like to teach again. I love taking complex things and talking about them in simpler ways, because it helps me understand those things better. I taught English to non-native speakers when I lived in Japan and South Korea many years ago. Because I so enjoy thinking about why things are the way they are, and because I tend to pay close attention to wording and language, I found I was really good at helping students make connections between what they wanted to say and what they already understood. Language isn’t about arbitrary rules and memorization, it’s about communication, and communication is always an attempt to share knowledge.


Now I’m finding that there are a lot of creative people who are intimidated by the business end of things, unskilled in face-to-face networking and negotiation, inexperienced with contracts and banks and sales. I’d like to be able to use my background in law and international business to help creatives take their art as far as they choose financially as well as artistically.




41. Tell us about your latest release.


“Seventeen” is set in the Midwestern United States in the not too distant future. Civilization has evolved to a point where corporations own and control everything on Earth. If you want to survive, you’ve got to have something the corporations want, but what do you give them when they’ve taken all but your soul?


As the earth’s supply of raw materials dwindled to nothing, corporations were able to corner every market, all around the world. They used this unprecedented power to gradually replace government as the focal point of human power. Like governments, corporations are immortal and soulless. Unlike governments, corporations act solely to benefit the bottom line. As such, they have supplanted the old governmental power base — election by the people — with the corporate power base of efficiency.


To remain efficient in spite of deepening shortages, corporate culture demanded that society be reshaped into a rigid hierarchy. Now there are 17 billion people on the planet, each with nothing to trade but total obedience to the organization. At the bottom of the corporate hierarchy: perfectly compliant “brain trust” employees, who are kept alive but unconscious for hundreds of years after natural deaths would have occurred, their brains processing information as parts of enormous data banks. They outnumber the conscious “ambulatory” workers by a wide margin.


The ecosystem has been destroyed, and because so many toxic plant varieties developed with irrepressibly infectious genes in the early days of genetic engineering, all plants have been declared illegal. Nearly every product on Earth is made from secretions of patented, genetically modified bacteria, with each purchase debited from corporate accounts at the point of sale. Medicines, too, are synthesized from various strains of bacteria, with unseen doctors debiting accounts as their computers authorize prescriptions for their roughly 30,000 patients each.


Eadie, a 19 year-old waitress in one of the synthetic-food diners owned by a gargantuan organization, brings the society’s brutal control mechanisms into play against her when she intervenes in a struggle on behalf of a bedraggled alcoholic known as the Prophet. He predicts she will lead a revolution, but how is that possible when she lacks the power to change even her own miserable situation? She has nothing, she is nothing.


Street drugs, too, are now made from engineered bacteria. Brian, a heroin dealer, is dosed with an unknown substance produced by an untested strain and runs off into the night, eventually seeking help that brings him into contact with Eadie and her band of desperate followers. His herbalist, Dok, can’t tell if Brian’s condition is just a case of undifferentiated schizophrenia or some new kind of brain damage, but he’d rather have Brian keep the gun than hold onto it, himself.


Though Eadie comes to believe that she was indeed intended for a greater purpose, she finds herself a destitute outcast, forced into hiding by the powerful enemies she has made.  She must rely on the resourcefulness of the followers she has unwittingly attracted as the only means of advancing her cause.  In order to achieve her destiny in a world run by brutal, ultra-hierarchical corporations, her own primitive organization will have to run just as tightly and have equally severe consequences for disobedience.




43. What song would you choose for Karaoke?


I once found myself with a group of Japanese friends in a karaoke bar outside New York City. It was a fairly large place, around the size of a typical fast food joint, and I was the only non-Japanese person there. Still, I was there with my friends, and group cohesion is extremely important in Japanese culture. They were all singing, so I would have to sing, too. When others sang, most of the other tables kept drinking and talking, but when I approached the stage the whole place got silent.


To this day I’ve only sung a few songs in my entire life. Nearly all the available song choices were Japanese, and though I was familiar with a few, I didn’t know any well enough to try them in front of a crowd. The only one I found with lyrics in English that I thought might match my low voice was “Love Me Tender,” which was a terrible choice for someone in my position because it’s agonizingly slow with a lot of stretched-out notes. I don’t know anything about music or keys or pitch or any of that, and the song sounded as bad as you’d expect.


Japanese audiences are famously quiet. They don’t cheer and they barely ever clap. As I finished the song and came down from the stage, the room was as silent as it had been when I began.




44.  Which Star Trek or Star Wars character are you most like?

Han Solo. They’re not going to take me without a fight.




46.  First book you remember making an indelible impression on you. 

“The Razor’s Edge,” by W. Somerset Maugham


My father’s family worships money. It is all any of them think about. They tried to raise me to hold the same reverence for the almighty buck, but they were too hands-off and it didn’t stick. I had to live on my own terms, and eventually I learned that I couldn’t sacrifice the essence of who I was, just to chase a paycheck.


“The Razor’s Edge” was part of what helped me come to that realization, though I did so many years after I first read it. The main character, Larry, is completely immune to social pressure, temptation, and manipulation by those in power. He stays true to his own vision and carries on with the unique adventure that is his life, no matter what else happens. Everyone should read this book and use his character as a guide for constructing the life he/she wants.



48.  If you were a shifter, what animal would you like to be?

In his book “Galapagos,” Kurt Vonnegut described the life of a Galapagos marine iguana. It sits most of its life on a rock in the sun, thinking of nothing. When it gets hungry, it swims out and gulps up a bunch of seaweed, which cannot be digested unless it’s cooked. The iguana climbs back up on the rocks and sits in the sun, cooking its seaweed in its belly. When I read that I thought of how nice it would be to have an empty head, a full belly, and a sunny day.




49.  Favorite season? Why?


Early spring here in Maine, when there’s still just a bit of snow here and there but it’s no longer cold. The spring peepers trill through the night, and the days come shrouded in a fresh, velvety mist that you just want to keep inhaling forever.




50.  Best movie ever made? 

“American Beauty.” We, the audience, know Lester has one year to live, but Lester himself does not know. Early in the story, he quits his slaving job and starts living the life he wants to live. We watch him abandon a life of materialism and social climbing, and slowly develop his own understanding of what it’s all about.


By the time his death arrives, he is fully self-actualized, living as he chooses, and we see what a waste his last year would have been if he’d continued slogging along like everyone around him. We’re left to ask ourselves what we would change if we knew the next year would be our last.