William Hertling is the author of the award-winning novels Avogadro Corp, A.I. Apocalypse, The Last Firewall, and The Turing Exception. These near-term science-fiction novels explore the emergence of artificial intelligence, coexistence of humans and smart machines, and the impact of social reputation, technological unemployment, and other near-future issues. His last novel, Kill Process, is a technothriller about data ownership, privacy, and trust. Hertling’s novels have been called “frighteningly plausible,” “tremendous,” and “must read.” His newest thriller, Kill Switch, the sequel to Kill Process, has just been published.
I first encountered Will’s work back in 2009 when Avogadro Corp, then a novella, surfaced in my slushpile. I’d just founded Panverse Publishing and was accepting submissions for my first Science Fiction novella anthology, Panverse One. The premise — the spontaneous emergence of strong AI (aka “Technological Singularity”) from software intended to read and optimize replies to emails — was clever and convincing, and also very prescient if we look at what Google started doing some years later. But the author’s writing was rudimentary, entirely lacking in the sort of setting detail that brings fiction to life.
I was piqued enough by the idea that instead of a form rejection, I sent Will a brief email telling him that I loved the idea but the story lacked any sense of place, and felt it was taking place in a white room. I also suggested he consider expanding it into a novel.
Will not only took notice of my suggestions, but enrolled in an eight-week writing workshop to improve his craft. Three months and many revisions later, Avogadro Corp was a full-length novel.
In the years since, Will and I have become good friends, and I’m honored to work and consult with him as his developmental and copy editor. The ambitious novella I rejected has evolved into a quadrilogy, with books sold nudging the 100,000 mark, a breathtaking achievement for any author, let alone an indie, and William Hertling has become one of the best authors in the tech thriller genre. His just-released work, Kill Switch, is a tour-de-force which takes the reader on a thrilling, unexpected, and unique ride.
DC: Will, welcome, and thanks for letting me interview you.
Kill Process, the first book of this duology, was a thrilling exploration of corporate abuse of freedom and privacy. Your new novel, Kill Switch, is a compelling thriller which centers on the same broad themes of privacy and freedom but makes them deeply personal. Igloo, the main protagonist of Kill Switch, is a lesbian who practices consensual kink and BDSM with her partner, and together they decide to open their relationship to include others, a practice known as polyamory. This novel draws strong and clear parallels between Igloo’s chosen lifestyle and the far more visible issues of data privacy and an open internet. What prompted you to explore the connections between these seemingly separate worlds?
WH: I’ve always been interested in the exploration of power, especially manipulative power. This was true starting from my very first novel, Avogadro Corp, about a super-intelligent AI manipulating people by modifying their communications. And it’s been a theme of every book since, including Kill Process, which dealt with domestic abuse. One of the things that’s fascinating about the BDSM community is that they have made a practice of studying and practicing power exchange in a way that most of us encounter only rarely, and even then without conscious awareness of what is happening. I wanted to be able to tap into that collective wisdom.
At the same time, the BDSM community and polyamory community (and there is some overlap between those two) have been greatly stigmatized. As a result, all of the issues around privacy and identity and data ownership are far more keenly felt by these people than ordinary people. People can and do lose their jobs, family, and friends over exposure. It’s hard to imagine greater sensitivity to privacy. In my research, I frequently saw people taking extreme steps, akin to what Igloo and Angie do for operational security, to maintain the security and confidentiality of their own personal data.
DC: There’s a strong sense in this novel that the practice of consensual BDSM is still, for many people, a misunderstood and closeted lifestyle. Given the huge mainstream success of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey a full seven years ago, why do you think this is still the case?
WH: There are a few reasons. First, the LGBTQ community has been pushing for acceptance in many forms for a long time, but the movement around coming out, to help reduce isolation and increase LGBTQ visibility and pride dates back to the 1980s. That’s thirty plus years of work on acceptance, and there’s still a gap compared to heteronormative standards. Seven years to make inroads into BDSM acceptance is a small blip by comparison.
Also consider the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (commonly known as DSM), Homosexuality was removed as a disorder in 1987. By comparison, BDSM wasn’t removed from the DSM until 2013. That means that up until this decade, the majority of mental health professionals were still treating BDSM as a mental health issue.
Secondly, Fifty Shades and similar material is focused primarily in titillating the reader. At best, it might help people bond over the fantasy of BDSM, but it does nothing to promote the acceptance or normalization of real-life BDSM practices.
Thirdly, even with the long struggle of the LGBTQ community for acceptance, homosexual romantic love still looks essentially like love: people often couple up, they marry, they eat breakfast together, they kiss, they make love, they walk the dog together. They do all the normal things that any couple does. I think this is part of the reason why children don’t think twice about homosexual couples. I don’t mean to take away from the uniqueness of an LGBTQ experience — I’m sure there are many nuances that are different — but the basic relationship framework is more or less the same as what you’d find in a heterosexual relationship.
By comparison, a BDSM relationship is very different and especially looks very different from the outside. Bondage, dominance and submission, sadomasochism, the rituals of BDSM — these are not found in most romantic relationships. From the outside, the naive observer might confuse what they’re seeing with some form of abuse. The road to destigmatization of kink requires much more education.
DC: That’s something I found fascinating about your novel. The BDSM relationships portrayed in Kill Switch are loving, nurturing, and playful. This is very different to the widespread image of BDSM as a brutal and perverse practice, a perception which I believe began with De Sade, was reinforced by the sensational 1960s book The Velvet Underground, and lingers today even after the success of Fifty Shades. Where’s the truth here?
WH: Relationships of all kinds, not just kinky ones, come in a broad spectrum, ranging healthy to unhealthy. At one end of the spectrum, people in a relationship enhance each other’s lives, encouraging them to flourish, and to be healthier and happier than they could be on their own. This is loving and nurturing. At the other end of the spectrum, people in a relationship can do real mental and physical harm to each other. This is brutal and perverse.
BDSM relationships are no different. BDSM itself does not make a relationship healthy or not. It’s the mental and emotional health and skills of the people who are in the relationship that dictate the health of the relationship.
Healthy BDSM relationships are characterized by a great deal of communication, including especially the identification of each person’s needs and the explicit goal of meeting each person’s needs directly or by setting up the underlying conditions to allow them to meet their needs themselves.
In particular, BDSM relationships are very playful. In fact, kinky people call the very essence of what they do playing. (To be clear, people who take a 24/7 or lifestyle approach to BDSM also do activities that fall outside the realm of play, but even these folks also have designated playtime.) How many non-kinky folks specifically make play a core part of their relationship?
DC: I know this book took you over two years to write. Reconciling such apparently disparate plot elements as privacy, a free internet, and sexual lifestyle choices — which you succeed in doing brilliantly, by the way — must have been difficult, even for an author with five previous novels under his belt. Were there times when you thought you couldn’t pull off it off? Any aha! moments you’d like to share?
WH: Oy. I’m still not sure I pulled it off. I see the connections between all the themes, but I worry about whether others will. With this book, more than any other, I still felt like there was so much more to say. For example, I wanted to convey the intersectionality of what it means to be poly and kinky and queer and a woman working in tech, but I didn’t manage to capture that on the page. And I have never felt like a greater imposter than when trying to write a scene with two women having sex. Keeping the balance between tech and relationships and kink was also a juggling act. In order to keep the book from growing without bound, I had to focus the tech a little more narrowly then I usually do. I kept the core elements of the primary tech plotline (creating a new distributed, secure Internet architecture), but I had to keep the secondary tech plot aspects (such as hacking and surveillance technology) lighter than usual to make room for additional topics.
DC: Today, privacy and a free Internet seem to be lost causes. With an entire generation with little expectation of privacy or the sense of personal freedoms which anyone over, perhaps, thirty-five grew up with now coming to maturity, do you think we have any hope of ever regaining either?
WH: Let me answer with a little anecdote.
Recently I had a really rough week. I’d broken up with my primary partner a month earlier, and was still grieving. I was home sick with a really bad cold, and because I was sick, I’d had to cancel a number of fun activities I had planned. I spent the better part of two days in bed fighting off this cold and feeling miserable.
I spent a good portion of that time chatting online and texting with a number of good friends all throughout the two days.
In the evening of the second day, a friend came by to borrow something. We spent less than an hour talking together in person. We didn’t discuss anything substantial — we just chatted about everything and nothing.
When he left, I felt much happier than when he arrived — in fact, much happier than I’d felt anytime during the previous two days. At that moment, I realized that forty-five minutes talking to someone in person had done far more for my emotional well-being than hours and hours of chatting with people online.
It was a very visceral reminder that social media and online communication is not improving our lives. We all know this. We all feel this. Real life, in-person interactions is what we’re evolved for. That’s what we need emotionally and physically.
The purpose of online tools should not become how we interact with each other, but they should instead be the minimal tools we need for planning and creating the real-life, in-person shared experiences that actually bring us true joy and happiness.
This anecdote makes me think about the Great Horse Manure Crisis, in which it was predicted that due to population growth, New York City would be buried under horse manure. They didn’t anticipate (and couldn’t have) that the invention of the automobile would challenge all of their assumptions.
Let’s come back to your question about privacy and a free Internet feeling like a lost cause. If our assumption is that our current trends in technology continue unabated, then yes, maybe privacy and a free Internet are gone. But what if the role of technology in our lives is dramatically different in ten or fifteen years? What if, like the horse manure crisis, we’re worrying about things that will be completely changed in the near future? Perhaps privacy and a free Internet will be meaningful again.
DC: As a professional programmer, Web strategist, and futurist, you’re uniquely qualified to consider the future of the Internet and the way it’s reshaped, and continues to transform, our society, thinking, and behaviour. Privacy and freedom issues aside, those of us old enough to remember the golden days of the Internet, back in the early to mid ’90s, hate that it’s become something largely indistinguishable from television. Today, the only thing resembling the freedom from advertising, tracking, and lack of corporate dominance of that early Internet is the darknet. But most users, even if they’ve heard of it, either don’t know how to access it or see it — with some justification — as a seedy underworld of illegal drug markets and hackers to be avoided. Is it time for a third net to be created? Is that even a possibility?
WH: One of the great inspirations for both Kill Process and Kill Switch is IndieWeb, the movement toward a more independent and self-owned internet. It’s a people-focused alternative to the corporate-owned web. IndieWeb is a collection of people, processes, and tools, all working together to give people control of their online presence, and the ownership of their own personal data. The darkweb is interesting from a privacy and security perspective, and it is a way to get free of the current mass government surveillance. But over the long run, I think it’s IndieWeb that is the more relevant option. Tapestry, the social network I describe in both books, is essentially what the IndieWeb would look like over the long run if it was created and funded by a truly benevolent corporate entity. But the actual IndieWeb is in many ways even more interesting because it’s being created by a loose coalition of individuals without any single leader or benevolent dictator. Anyone who wants to contribute can. Like most open source projects, they can benefit from developers, designers, writers, social media influencers. They’re building this third web right now.
That being said, IndieWeb talks about there being four generations of potential users. The first generation consists of developers, because it’s technically challenging to install and use the IndieWeb tools. The second generation consists of journalists and bloggers — people who have a considerable stakeholding in their online presence, and who are willing to invest the time and energy to benefit from IndieWeb. The third generation are people who currently run their own websites and blogs on their own personal domains. These are people who are invested enough to make those kinds of technical decisions and investments. And it’s not until we get to the fourth generation of IndieWeb users that we get to the vast bulk of people out there: users of social media like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.
IndieWeb is currently focused on gen 1 and gen 2 users. It won’t be until the tools mature enough to be accessible to the average social media user that we’ll see IndieWeb make a serious dent in the web as we know it. My hope is that we’ll see a 10x growth in investment in IndieWeb over the next year or two. That would give it the attention, investment, and progress that it needs.
DC: Do you have any new novels planned or underway?
WH: Not yet. Most of the time when I finish a novel I have no idea what I’m going to write about next. At first that would send me into a panic. Now I’ve learned to worry less and trust more that something will come to me. I like to take a couple of months off to be creative in some other domain entirely, and then come back to writing with fresh enthusiasm.
One possible idea I might explore would be imagining what a post-social-media world might look like. One where we use technology to plan and create real-life experiences, not substitute for them.
DC: Will, thanks so very much for this fascinating discussion. I wish you every success with Kill Switch. Like Kill Process, I believe this is an important, perhaps critically important, novel that every thinking person should read. Everyone go out and buy it!
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/William-Hertling/e/B006J8EIY6