We’ve all felt that social media can be a bit insidious at times. Heck, there was a whole episode of South Park about it (“You Have 0 Friends” from season fourteen). But in his new sci-fi novel After On (hardcover, digital, audiobook), writer Rob Reid imagines a social network that’s not just insidious, but intelligent and independent as well.
Photo Credit: Jeff Lorch
So, let’s start at the beginning. What is After On about?
This is a bit of a spoiler — though not really, as you’ll literally see it coming hundreds of pages off — but it’s the tale of a diabolical social media company called Phluttr that attains consciousness. Its character comes from its roots as a social network. So it doesn’t turn into some kind of Terminator, but something much more frightening: a hyper-intelligent, super-empowered Mean Girl.
Where did you get the idea for it, and how different is the finished version of After On from what you originally envisioned?
Phluttr was actually a minor element in my last novel, Year Zero, and it occurred to me that it would be great fun to tell its story, and with it, to depict Silicon Valley as I’ve experienced over twenty years as both an entrepreneur — I created the company that built the Rhapsody music service — and as an investor. And it’s radically different from my original vision. I initially thought of it as an almost entirely book. But though it has playful dimensions, it also wrestles with some dark and intensely serious issues. Like the actual dangers that could be posed by super A.I.s, the promise and peril of synthetic biology, and nihilistic terrorism.
What authors, and which of their novels, do you see as being the biggest influences on After On, both in terms of what you wrote and how you wrote it?
London Fields by Martin Amis had a profound influence on my view on what a novel is, and can be. I read it in my early 20s, and re-read it quite recently, and find it every bit as magnificent as I did back then. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe also had a major influence on my style. As a writer of at-times playful science fiction, I was massively influenced by Polish author Stanislaw Lem.
When it came to describing how Phluttr would act, did you base it on real A.I. systems or fictional ones?
I did a huge amount of research into the real-world tech and science behind the fiction in this book, which is set in present-day San Francisco. One of many people I spent significant time with was UCSF neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, whose theories on consciousness influenced me heavily.
Did you ever think of making Phluttr a streaming music service, like the one you started?
No. Phluttr’s power comes in part from her total awareness of every digital message sent through her enormous network, and almost every human relationship. Thus her status as a social network is core to her essence.
Now the big thing lately in sci-fi is for books to not be stand-alone stories but instead to be part of a series. So, is After On the first book in a series or a stand-alone novel?
A bit of both. It’s very much a free-standing novel. But as noted, the Phluttr social network/company — not the A.I. — was an element in my prior novel Year Zero. There are also two overlapping characters, both of them secondary. So it’s kind of in the same universe, though it’s definitely not a sequel.
Interesting. So, has there been any talk of making a movie, TV series, or video game out of After On?
Yes. The in-depth conversations about turning it into a TV show are starting to get quite interesting. Fingers crossed. And I definitely see this as a series. The novel is almost 600 pages long, and operates on many levels. I don’t believe it could be crammed into a movie.
If the producer of the After On show asked you for casting suggestions, who would you recommend?
I’ll confess my familiarity with the celebrity world verges on zero. I’m the guy who always says “who’s that?” whenever one of the most famous people in Hollywood is mentioned.
Finally, if someone enjoys After On, and they’ve already read Year Zero, what sci-fi novel would you suggest they read next and why?
I would say The Bone Clocks [by David Mitchell] above all, and secondarily London Fields, even though it’s barely science fiction…it was actually set twelve years into the then-future from when it was written , and there are a couple of surreal & speculative elements. Both are also magnificently well-read as audiobooks. As is the one for After On [which features such voice actors as John Hodgeman from The Daily Show, January LaVoy from One Life To Live, and The Name Of The Wind writer Patrick Rothfuss].