In his new cyberpunk thriller, Last Tango In Cyberspace (hardcover, Kindle), writer Steven Kotler shows us a world where empathy is used as a tool for business. In the following email interview, Kotler — who, full disclosure, used to write for the magazine Bikini, where I was an editor (though not his) — discusses what inspired this story, the fellow writers who influenced it, and why he thinks it would make a really good video game.
Photo Credit: Ryan Hefferman
To start, what is Last Tango In Cyberspace about?
The story follows Lion Zorn, an empathy tracker or em-tracker, a new kind of human with a much deeper ability to feel empathy than most. His talent lets him track cultural trends into the future, a form of empathetic prognostication, and a useful skill to a certain kind of company. But when Arctic Pharmaceuticals hires him to em-track rumors of a new and extremely potent psychedelic — with potential medical uses — he ends up enmeshed in a world of startup religions, environmental terrorists, and overlapping global conspiracies, with nothing less than the future of the human mind at stake.
In other words, it’s a thriller about the ramifications of accelerating technology, the evolution of empathy, and the hidden costs of consciousness-expansion.
What inspired the plot of Last Tango In Cyberspace, how different is the finished story from your original concept, and what prompted those changes?
The book came out of twin obsessions. The first is the dark, noir cyberpunk novels of William Gibson. I love the texture of his work, how they make you feel a little dislocated in time and space, and how his books are both page-turning thrillers and deep, serious explorations of big, important ideas. I wanted to try writing something similar. I also wanted to talk about a lot of big issues: animal rights, the biodiversity crisis, the our-survival-is-at-stake importance of empathy for all — that is, empathy, not just for all humans, but also for plants, animals, and ecosystems. Also, a bunch of stuff about the ramifications of future technology and the hidden costs of consciousness expansion. Those are heavy ideas. In a nonfiction book, it’s hard to really get at how those ideas overlap and it’s hard to avoid the results sounding like a polemic. But, in fiction, it’s just part of the plot. And, since you have multiple characters, you can look at multiple sides of an issue. And you can crack jokes. It’s just a lot more freedom and fun.
And the finished story is what I intended. There were a few surprises. Characters who started out with small parts and ended up with starring roles (Penelope), or plot twists I didn’t quite expect (the scene with the coyote), but tip-to-tail, barring the stuff I inevitably screwed up, it’s what I set out to write.
Is there a reason why you set this story five years from now as opposed to twenty-five or fifty or five hundred?
One of the book’s big investigations is exploring how the blitzkrieg speed of technological change is impacting our world, and how the world just five years from now will be radically different than today’s world. Thus the time frame.
Last Tango In Cyberspace is a cyberpunk sci-fi thriller. But does it incorporate any other genres or subgenres or combinations of them?
Well, anything cyberpunk owes a big debt to noir detective fiction, so it’s hard to escape the Raymond Chandler influence. Also, there’s a tiny bit of magical realism in there (debt owed to Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and a bit of meta-fiction (debt owed to Thomas Pynchon) and, because of my journalism background, a lot of new journalism — especially Joan Didion.
Are there any other writers or specific stories that had a big influence on Last Tango In Cyberspace?
How about non-literary influences; did any movies, TV shows, or video games have a big impact on either what you wrote in Last Tango In Cyberspace or how you wrote it?
Blade Runner because it provided a different view of the cultural mash up, our polytribe future. It’s a thriller that examined heavy questions about how we define life, and the heavy moral issues surrounding creating life from scratch.
Apocalypse Now is in there because of how the movie makes people feel — dislocated in time and space, like a stranger in your own life. That’s how I think the world is starting to make us feel. It’s the byproduct of radical change in very short periods of time.
And I have to ask, given the title, what influence did Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris have on Last Tango In Cyberspace?
A lot more of it is that I loved the title Last Tango In Cyberspace as it got at the book’s central point: the end of something new. This is a little bit what Bertolucci’s film was about. Also, both the book and film push on questions of identity and anonymity — but in radically different ways.
Some cyberpunk sci-fi novels are self-contained stories, while others are part of larger sagas. What is Last Tango In Cyberspace?
It’s the first in a series, but that’s all I know. Some of the characters will show up in both. Lion is going to be the protagonist. It’s a series because I’ve never written one before and I wanted the challenge. Plus, I had an absolute blast writing Last Tango and definitely want to live with the characters for a while longer.
So, what can you tell us about this series in terms of how many books it’ll be, when they’ll be out…
I’ll let you know when I know. All I have at this point is a vague plot outline. I’d look for the next one in 2021. And no idea what to call [this series] yet. I have a horrible working title, The Devil’s Dictionary, and nothing more.
Now, some people are going to wait until the other books come out before reading Last Tango In Cyberspace. Do you think this is a good idea or is there some reason they shouldn’t wait?
All the issues discussed in the book are relevant right now. With very few exceptions, all the future tech is real, hiding out in labs, yet heading our way at blistering speed. The moral issues are also relevant now. We’re in the middle of a gargantuan environmental crisis and the future of our species really is at stake.
Plus, the book is a ton of fun, so why wait?
Earlier I asked if Last Tango In Cyberspace was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interested in adapting it into a movie, show, or game?
Yes, but I can’t say much more. Nor can I pick a format. I think there are versions that would make a great movie and others that make great TV show. But a video game where you win by learning to expand empathy — sort of what the book is about — would be downright amazing. And helpful. But it would have to be a massive multi-player game to really be effective. Also, just based on what we know about the neuroscience of empathy, especially the work being done by Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford, VR would be a far more effective tool for this than a traditional video game.
Finally, if someone enjoys Last Tango In Cyberspace, which of your other novels would you suggest they check out next and why that book?
Depends on what really caught their attention. If it was the future tech, then check out Abundance and Bold; for consciousness expansion see The Rise Of Superman or Stealing Fire; and for animals and environmental themes, check out A Small Furry Prayer.