Stephen Baker

The Boost
My next novel: Washington at War
June 20, 2014General


I'm working on my next novel. It's a prequel to The Boost, and I'm calling it Washington at War. It takes place in the crucial years of 2043/44, when China and the United States battle for tech supremacy in the age of brain iimplants. The implants, or boosts, will become the platform for virtually all human communication--news, business, entertainment, diplomacy, and virtual worlds. Whoever rules the boost runs the world. Needless to say, the stakes are large.

I have a plot sketched out. I'm wondering, though, whether to tell the story more or less as I did in The Boost, with an omniscient narrator going from character to character, or to try something different. I'm toying with the idea of a first-person narration. In this case, this character wouldn't be entirely reliable. He (and I think it's a he) wouldn't know everything. And he might not be the nicest person in the story. In fact, he might be something of a villain. 

I'll let you know what I decide, but would welcome ideas.

The art, incidentally, comes from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. I was looking for images of Washington at War, and all I came across was Revolutionary War art featuring Gen. Washington. That's about three centuries too old. So I opted instead for an old image of the future.

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Amazon Fire phone: One step closer to the Boost
June 19, 2014News


Amazon's new phone is out, and one of its features, Firefly, brings it closer to The Boost. Firefly allows a user to point the phone at practically any object, send an image to the cloud, and have it recognized and located in Amazon's warehouses. Hit buy, and it will be at your doorstep in a day or two. It even works with movies and songs. 

In The Boost, where nearly everyone has a brain chip, most artifacts of the physical world are also identified and tagged. There's less need for physical objects, because more and more of our lives occur in the entertainment and communications hubs on the chip. (In fact, much of the physical world looks abandandoned.) But it occurs to me that Amazon, if it continues along the line traced by Founder Jeff Bezos, will one day be looking into brain chips. It's the natural evolution of the brand.

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Will kids have to hack cars to drive them?
June 11, 2014General


Google's braintrust in a robotic car

Driverless cars are inevitable, I believe, because they're safer by orders of magnitude.
 Robotic drivers don't fall asleep, drive drunk or fiddle with text messages. Today's NYTimes lays out the numbers. Of course, if it were up to us, that wouldn't matter. We smoke, eat bacon cheeseburgers and ride motorcycles without helmets. 

So what will force the change? Insurance companies. They'll start, I'm guessing, by offering rich discounts to people who hand over the driving to robots. As these numbers grow, the economics will shift. Those who insist on driving their own cars will have to pay hideous premiums. Imagine what it's like today to get insurance when you have a couple of drunk driving convictions on your record. That's what it'll be like for those who want to drive on robot-dominated roadways.

In The Boost, which takes place in 2072, all cars have been robotic for decades. Ralf, the protagonist, has had his brain chip, or boost, ripped from his head, and is now "wild." At one point, he marvels that back when his mother was a teenager, in the late 2020s, people still had the freedom to drive cars. 

"They'd make phone calls, turn around to yell at their kids, even get drunk or fall asleep--all while driving a three-ton machine that was getting instructions from no one but them. It wasn't only the people who were were wild. Cars were, too."

One question is whether kids in the future will be able to "hack" robotic cars to be able to drive. It'll be hard for them, of course, if there's no steering wheel.

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Long before Snowden: My time at the NSA
June 7, 2014Datamining


The secretive National Security Agency wanted some publicity, if you can believe it. This was in 2005. I was working on a  BusinessWeek cover story about the coming age of data, and the NSA put me in touch with the chief of its mathematics group, James R. Schatz.

In the age of growing data, Schatz told me, "There has never been a better time to be a mathematician." And that was precisely why he was on the phone. The market was hot for math. Wall Street was gobbling up mathematicians, and so were the Internet giants, like Google and Yahoo. The NSA was hard-pressed to compete for brainpower. In this race, the NSA was handicapped. It was limited to U.S. citizens, and while the banks and Web companies could offer stock and big salaries, the NSA could only offer government pay. Its pitch: Patriotism, interesting work, regular working hours, and a suburban life style near its base in Ft Meade, Md. 

I went on later to meet James Schatz in Ft. Meade while working on the Terrorism chapter for the book that grew out of the BusinessWeek story, The Numerati. (We met at the National Cryptologic Museum down the road from the black glass headquarters pictured above.) Anyway, I was thinking about his concerns when I saw the NYT story this morning on how the Internet giants are building defenses against the spies. Wonder who'll win that battle of brains.

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A presidential birthplace lost to China
June 5, 2014News


A Tiananmen Square anniversary post.

The scenario. Twenty-nine years from now, the Chinese offer their cognitive brain chips, or boosts, to the rest of humanity. This presents a no-win choice to the Americans, who have no similar technology in place. If the Chinese chips prevail, they will rule the next stage of technology, and all of the commerce and information that runs on it. But to take a pass on the chips might mean settling for relative Neanderthal status while the rest of humanity advances into Cro-Magnon. 

This is all history by the time of my story, in The Boost. But as a result of the negotiations that occur between the Americans and the Chinese, China extends its dominance across the Pacific, as the Americans did in the 20th century. And they take over Hawaii--the birthplace of President Obama. If you look at history, maps change, often dramatically. 

Far-fetched? 

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Kevin J. Anderson and religion in other worlds
June 4, 2014General


Kevin J. Anderson, the prolific sci-fi author, sat at a panel with me at Comicpalooza in Houston. We have the same publisher (Tor), but I've published one novel, he's on #125 at last count. He knows a thing or two. When someone in the audience asked him how he creates new worlds in his fiction, he had a ready answer, complete with an acronym: PERSIA.

P stands for politics. Who's in charge? How do they maintain control?
E = economics. Do they have money? What is valued and exchanged? What do the inhabitants do for work?
R is religion.
S is science. What do they know, and what can they do with this knowledge. It's related, naturally, to politics and economics.
I is the murkiest to me: Intelligentsia. Is there a group with special knowledge? Do they threaten the rulers, or do they run the place?
A is art. What do they create for beauty, and what does it say about their civilization?

I thought about these categories for The Boost. One that comes up nearly empty is religion. There's no talk of religious affiliation (though it could be argued that the brainwork to run the boost courses through neural pathways devoted in previous generations to prayer). Some of the characters, however, think about religion. At one point, Ellen looks from her window in El Paso toward Juarez, where the people lack cognitive chips (and are considered "wild"). 

"She wonders if wild people are more religious than everyone else. That would make sense, since they carry around more mystery in their lives--or at least fewer answers. They have almost no idea of what diseases they're most likely to get, or what food and medicine to take to avoid them. It's like a crap shoot. When you get down to it, they don't know that much more about their lives and their bodies than the cavemen did. Then again, even with all the advances from the boost, the applications that spot cancer cells and obliterate them with nano agents, the programs that stimulate neurons and reverse diseases like Parkinson's and MS--despite all that, people still die with chips in their heads. Death just comes a couple decades later, barely a blink in eternity. So religion shouldn't be that much less relevant, she thinks. The wild people just have more empty time to consider it."

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Hunger Games, Divergent or Fahrenheit 451?
June 3, 2014Marketing the book


It wasn't until after I'd written The Boost that I learned it was dystopian. I just thought it was a book about the future, both good and bad. Now I'm interested in catching up on this genre I participate in. I searched dystopian books on Google and found a few I'd read--and a bunch I haven't gotten to yet. I'd welcome recommendations.

Here's what I've read: 

1984, by George Orwell. Beautifully constructed book, pervaded by grimness and despair. Very few laughs. 
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Much like 1984, but post-apocalyptic. Love persists.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. Read it in high school. Only remember the drugs.

Let's stop the charade. I'm nearly unread in this genre. I took Fahrenheit 451 out of the library, but didn't read it. I saw the movies of Never Let Me GoThe Children of Men and A Clockwork Orange. Which dystopian books should I read? Hunger GamesOryx and CrakeDivergent?

***
Incidentally, looking for the links to these books, I just came across the Amazon interview with Veronica Roth, of Divergent. She gives a nice piece of advice to writers:

"Want something else more than success. Success is a lovely thing, but your desire to say something, your worth, and your identity shouldn’t rely on it, because it’s not guaranteed and it’s not permanent and it’s not sufficient. So work hard, fall in love with the writing—the characters, the story, the words, the themes—and make sure that you are who you are regardless of your life circumstances. That way, when the good things come, they don’t warp you, and when the bad things hit you, you don’t fall apart."


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American dullards: What happens here when foreigners get brain implants?
May 31, 2014Marketing the book


A nation of dimwits?

The year 2043, in the world of The Boost... Early in the year, the Chinese moved to implant cognitive chips, or boosts, into their entire population, and they offered chips to all of humanity. Workers with chips were more productive, enhanced diplomats communicated wordlessly in negotiations, children with chips aced the standardized tests in minutes!. Still, Americans resisted Chinese chips, worrying about privacy and safety issues, and sovereignty--not to mention religion.

An outtake from the novel: 

In the end, a grassroots movement forced the government’s hand. Across the country, parents filed successful suits, pressing the Commerce Department for rights to import Chinese processors for their children. Overnight, normal students budded into prodigies. Within months, exclusive private schools around San Francisco and New York were demanding Chinese processors in the heads of incoming students. Tech companies entered into bidding wars for capped engineers from Asia. Thousands of “cognitive tourists” were traveling to Malaysia and Singapore and returning with startling powers. An enhanced elite was taking shape. It threatened to turn the wild majority of the country--which still included the government--into a vast underclass of dullards.


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Bush health care book hits NYT bestseller list
May 28, 2014General

The Boost isn't my only book out this month. The other one, a book I wrote with athenahealth's Jonathan Bush, just hit the New York Times Bestseller list. It's called Where Does it Hurt? An Entrepreneur's Guide to Fixing Health Care.  It feels great to be slotted in at number six, ahead of Mariano Rivera, and biting at Timothy Geithner's heels.


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Paul di Filippo reviews The Boost
May 21, 2014Marketing the book


I've trimmed a bit. The full review is in the Sci-Fi journal, Locus

...Reading The Boost, one discovers that Baker plainly knows all this and is intent on giving us a stefnal allegory about our contemporary madness. But that goal does not stand in the way of a rousing, idea-packed adventure story from this highly competent beginning novelist, whose CV as a tech writer for BusinessWeek has obviously prepped him well to speculate on cutting edge technology and its impact.

The year is 2072, and every single citizen who is not an outcast “wild” human has “the boost” in his or her head: a gadget no bigger than a fly’s wing, implanted in youth, that offers virtual reality, augmented reality, mind-to-mind communications, life-logging, auxiliary memory and general internet access. With free annual software upgrades! “Every year, some 430 million Americans wake up one day in the middle of March feeling different, smarter, snappier.”

But that upgrade is now the source of trouble. This year’s download contains a secret back door inserted by the Chinese engineers, Gate 318 Blue, allowing who-knows-what kinds of hacking. Learning of this, our hero, Ralf Alvare of the federal Upgrade Department, finds his life immediately overturned and in peril before he can even act. He’s kidnapped and his boost is surgically removed.

Escaping with the help of a mysterious Asian man, now a helpless “wild human” himself, he goes on the run, hooking up for assistance with sometime paramour Ellen (who happens to sport the fashionable “Artemis” somatype). They head to El Paso to meet with Ralf’s brother Simon, who might offer some solutions.

But on their trail, under the command of despotic, ninety-three-year-old billionaire John Vallinger, is the oversized hired killer named Oscar Espinoza. The trio of Ellen, Rafe and Simon eventually flee over the border, into Ciudad Juárez, where everyone is a wild human. There, they encounter the local crime kingpin, Don Paquito, whose old-fashioned illicit network—featuring an actual newspaper, of all antique things!—might just offer a solution to their problems and to the larger dilemma of the tainted upgrade.

Now, before we begin to look at Baker’s commentary on the nature of the boost—and by extension, our always-wired cell phone culture—let’s give him props for sheer storytelling. His tale is rendered in light, easy, smooth prose which walks the tragicomic tightrope brilliantly and deftly. There’s a definite Donald Westlake vibe to such elements as put-upon hit man Espinoza, who relishes becoming wild because it frees him from his overseer, Vallinger’s hireling, the virtual-porn entrepreneur George Smedley, allowing Espinoza to luxuriate in Mexico with lots of meals of delicious goat. Then there’s the intriguing love story between Ellen and Ralf; the surprising family dynamics of the Alvare clan; the lifestyle of being a beautiful Artemis woman; international realpolitik; and a host of other non-tech aspects of late-21st-century life.

But the most substantial aspect of this adventure is Baker’s dissection of what the boost does to baseline humans, who are deemed Neanderthals and essentially disabled compared to the boost users. Baker catalogs the dismaying shifts: people can be rudely having virtual sex while seeming to converse with you. They are content with eating tasteless protein pills and allowing the boost to fool their sensorium with artificial tastes. Eye-to-eye contact is painful. Ralf to Ellen: “It’s easier to manage memories of you…than to manage the relationship in real time.”

Perhaps the core speech occurs when older brother Simon and Ralf are talking about their different childhood experiences of the boost, echoing some of the same thoughts that Rudy Rucker has blogged about, concerning simulations versus nature.

Simon goes on to describe the generation gap that he still feels with his little brother. He and his friends grew up with their experiences grounded in the wild brain… “Then they come along and give us virtual apps that were just the crudest version of reality… When we were disappointed, they called us Luddites… But your generation was different… You accepted the virtual as real.”

And there’s the theme in a nutshell. Reality versus simulation, solipsism versus mutuality, dominance by constructs versus unmediated interactions. This is certainly one of the biggest issues of our time, explored here with sophistication and insight.

One final observation on this novel: Stephen Baker comes from outside the genre, but is as proficient, savvy and adept as any prozine-trained acolyte of Campbell. Like Ernest Cline with Ready Player One, Kenneth Calhoun with Black Moon, Jennifer Egan with A Visit from the Goon Squad, Gary Shteyngart with Super Sad True Love Story, and any number of other allied “mainstream” books, he proves that SF is now truly a universal language accessible to anyone anywhere who is willing to learn it.


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Kirkus Reviews - https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/stephen-baker/the-boost/

LibraryJournal - Library Journal

Booklist Reviews - David Pitt

Locus - Paul di Filippo

read more reviews



The Boost: an excerpt
- April 15, 2014


My horrible Superbowl weekend, in perspective
- February 3, 2014


My coming novel: Boosting human cognition
- May 30, 2013


Why Nate Silver is never wrong
- November 8, 2012


The psychology behind bankers' hatred for Obama
- September 10, 2012


"Corporations are People": an op-ed
- August 16, 2011


Wall Street Journal excerpt: Final Jeopardy
- February 4, 2011


Why IBM's Watson is Smarter than Google
- January 9, 2011


Rethinking books
- October 3, 2010


The coming privacy boom
- August 17, 2010


The appeal of virtual
- May 18, 2010


My next book: IBM's Jeopardy mission
- March 22, 2010