Exclusive Interview: “Exadelic” Author Jon Evans


In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Hydra used an algorithm to determine what people posed the biggest threats to their new world order. And in Jon Evans’ new hard science fiction novel Exadelic (hardcover, Kindle), an AI does something similar. Except that, in Exadelic, the threat is not a master of the mystic arts or a scientist with breathtaking anger management issues, but a mild-mannered member of middle management. In the following email interview, Evans discusses what inspired and influenced this sci-fi story.

Jon Evans Exadelic

Photo Credit: Clayton J. Mitchell Photography


To start, what is Exadelic about, and when and where does it take place?

“When and where does it take place” sounds like such a simple question. But that clause “without spoiling anything” is a killer; this is a book made of spoilers. I’ll say that the first 50-100 pages take place in what is recognizably the present day, but that the scope…widens…rather a lot…after that.

It’s about an AI that learns how to hack the fabric of reality, and then inexplicably decides that our apparently mild-mannered, inconsequential protagonist is somehow the primary threat to its existence.

Where did you get the idea for Exadelic?

So, my subconscious is a mystery even to me, but almost all my books are inspired by travel, and my travels just before I started Exadelic were super weird even by my standards. I was directing a project called the GitHub Archive Program, with the objective of preserving the world’s open-source software for future generations, and by future generations I mean the next millennium.

As such we established partnerships with universities and the Long Now Foundation and the Internet Archive and so forth, but the most cinematic thing we did was physically print all the world’s open-source software to archival film and deposit it in a vault in an abandoned coal mine beneath an Arctic mountain in Svalbard, closer to the North Pole than the Arctic Circle, just down the road from the famous Global Seed Vault. (Literally; it’s like a 20-minute walk.) So I went to this remote Arctic fastness with a team of GitHub people and GitHub’s CEO and multiple video teams, one from Businessweek of all places documenting it for a cover story, and at one point I found myself sitting the back of a Land Rover with a polar-bear rifle in one hand and a reel of archival film in the other, thinking “I always figured if I found myself in a situation like this I’d be wearing my journalist hat, not my software engineering one…”

But as you might imagine, that kind of journey, and project, makes you think a lot about the course of humanity over the next thousand years, which is pretty science fictional territory. Also, GitHub’s CEO at the time, Nat Friedman, was already extremely interested in modern AI, way ahead of the huge boom of the last year or so, and that kind of rubbed off on my thinking too. And I’d always wanted to write a man-on-the-run story. One day all these things just crystallized, and…I started writing.

Now, the “apparently mild-mannered, inconsequential protagonist” you mention is in middle management. Is there a reason why you centered this story around someone at that level as opposed to upper management or, conversely, someone who is clearly not management material?

There are two reasons, and the name of the first is Philip K. Dick. One of the things I always liked about PKD’s fiction was that, even in that age of classic science fiction, his characters had jobs, and not jobs like “starship captain” or “ambassador to aliens,” but boring jobs, crappy jobs, that readers could identify with. That was pretty unusual in sci-fi at the time, and I wanted to adopt the same approach. And I think “middle manager” is kind of the classic modern crappy job, in the David Graeber-esque “bullshit jobs” sense.

The other reason is that there’s a lot of crazy stuff happening in this book, and so I thought it needed a pretty prosaic everyperson character to anchor it. Someone who is quite ordinary — even quite mediocre a lot of the time, he gets a lot of stuff wrong — and reacts to all the bonkers stuff going on in a way that people can identify with, or at least is more sympathetic than some swashbuckling hero type. But at the same time he has to be reasonably technical to understand a lot of what’s happening, so “former okay-but-not-great software dude turned middle manager” seemed the best fit.

It sounds like Exadelic is a mix of cyberpunk sci-fi and urban fantasy….

Yes, it does sound like that, from the cover.

However, it is not. It is hard science fiction. It may be the only book about occult magic ever categorized as “Hard Science Fiction” by Amazon. (I am very pleased by this.) I realize of course that this sounds like a complete contradiction in terms. Like I said, it’s a book made of spoilers.

…okay, I’ll unpack that a little, a MINI SPOILER, nothing you don’t learn in the first hundred pages. The concept is that — as Stephen Wolfram has suggested — the fundamental substrate of our universe is more like software than like hardware…and there are bugs in that software, and the phenomena we call “magic” has always only ever been side effect of those bugs. However, these bugs are much too complex and subtle for the human mind to hack in a productive, reproducible way. Even a lifetime of study you could maybe make very minor weird stuff happen chaotically, but not exploit those bugs to do anything really significant.

An AI mind, though…

Exadelic is your seventh novel, and you’ve also written a graphic novel called The Executor, and put together a book of your travel writing, No Fixed Address. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Exadelic but not on anything else you’ve written? You mentioned Philip K. Dick earlier…

Tor calls the book “Neal Stephenson meets Philip K. Dick,” and I think it’s safe to cite Stephenson as an influence. Olaf Stapledon, definitely — my original idea for it was “Olaf Stapledon writes a hell-for-leather action thriller.” (If you’re familiar with Stapledon, you know this sounds hilariously oxymoronic.) And there are shout-outs to a lot of other sci-fi authors in the book, some subtle, some extremely explicit; Octavia Butler, C.J. Cherryh, Robert Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ada Palmer. Also, Jo Walton’s Thessaly series was definitely influential in its everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach.

How about non-literary influences? Was Exadelic influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?

Subconsciously, probably a zillion, I’m a movie buff, but the only conscious influence is probably Chris Marker’s La Jetée [the movie that inspired Terry Gilliam’s classic movie 12 Monkeys], which have course has influenced almost everything, but, y’know, add me to the list.

And what about all the traveling you do as a travel writer? Do you think that may have influenced Exadelic in any way?

Yep. I already mentioned the Svalbard trip above, but also I’ve gone on multiple trips to Egypt and multiple trips to East Africa, and, as becomes apparent midway through the book, he said deliberately vaguely, those were very influential on certain aspects of it.

Now, Exadelic sounds like it’s a stand-alone story…

As written it’s a one-volume, five-act structure, but each of those acts could easily have been expanded into a novel of its own. I’m glad I didn’t do that, though; I’m confident it hits harder as a single entity. That said, I put sequel hooks into everything I write — I think it always makes stories seem more real and visceral — very much including Exadelic. There’s some slight strangeness at its very end which makes sense thematically…but could also be construed as setup for a sequel.

Though, weirdly, while I also have absolutely no idea what any such sequel would entail, I do know exactly what its title would be: Sybilisk.

Earlier I asked if Exadelic had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Exadelic could work as a movie, show, or game?

I’m going to have to be slightly cautious here because there has been quite a bit of film / TV interest, and at first the consensus was that there was just too much to the book for it to work as a movie, but subsequently the Hollywood people seemed to soften on that…though of course for the last four months I’ve heard zilch due to the strikes, so who knows. To my mind, though, a series would be a better fit than a film.

And if, when the strike ends, someone wanted to adapt Exadelic into a movie or show, who would you want them to cast as Adrian and the other main characters?

This too sounds like a very simple and fun and unobjectionable question but, well, the book isn’t just made of spoilers, it’s made of weird spoilers, a bunch of which affect the answer to this question in rather strange ways. That said, I think Adam Driver [BlacKkKlansman] could work, or maybe [Zombieland‘s] Jesse Eisenberg.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Exadelic?

I just want to stress that in case it sounds like a big dense book full of all manner of bonkers weirdness and big ideas, well, you’re not wrong, but my primary objective while writing it was to make sure that above all it was a ton of fast-paced fun, and I feel surprisingly confident I succeeded. It’s not a contemplative read, it’s a thrill ride that also makes you think.

Jon Evans Exadelic

Finally, if someone enjoys Exadelic, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next?

My other genre novel, Beasts Of New York, a very dark fantasy about squirrels in Central Park. Its rights reverted to me and I published it to Wattpad, so you can even read it there for free!



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