Thanks to its natural beauty, laid-back attitude, and proximity to Los Angeles, Santa Barbara has long offered sanctuary to Hollywood refugees. Having done time in the L.A. film industry, screenwriter Josh Conviser relocated to Montecito in order to escape the interference of studios, producers, and committees, and concentrate on a new project: a near-future novel called Echelon. One year since Echelon‘s release, he’s launching into the promotion of its sequel, Empyre.
Conviser places his work in the grand tradition of the “what-if” story. “The first book looks at the state of information technology, and specifically the information systems within the National Security Administration,” he said, when we met up to discuss his work. “Today, you hear about domestic eavesdropping done by a system called Echelon; my novel looks at what might happen when that technology gets more and more advanced, how it might impact society and the world, and how it might create a wild thriller for my readers.”
This explosion in information processing power drives the change from the world we know today to the one we find in Conviser’s fiction. “While it’s not a huge issue right now that these systems exist,” Conviser said, “when a huge volume of data can be more easily processed, one small group can manage the entire flow of information around the world, which has both good and bad effects.” “The Singularity,” a concept much theorized about by futurists, plays a large part in this scenario. “The Singularity is a term for the point at which technology has advanced so far that we can no longer predict the future based on the past, at which point we’ll be in a whole new reality,” Conviser explained. “In Echelon, a government system holds back The Singularity. In Empyre, that limit is decimated.”
At the center of the narrative is Ryan Laing, who starts out as an operative within the Echelon system, but ultimately finds himself on the run from the very organization to which he once pledged allegiance. Conviser described his protagonist as “the next century’s Jason Bourne. He’s extremely capable and the very best in his field, but he has serious flaws in his psyche that make him understandable to the reader. The death of his parents drove him to place control on a world that’s inherently uncontrollable; he struggles with letting go of that need to control.”
The books also follow Sarah Peters, who reacts very differently to the setting of The Singularity, embracing all types of new technology, including augmentations to her own body. “She’s more comfortable with the rate of progress and with the shape of the world around her,” Conviser said, suggesting that Ryan and Sarah represent two opposite ways for individuals and society as a whole to respond to a rapidly changing technological context.
Echelon and Empyre ride the line between two genres: science fiction and spy thriller. “The first serious books I read were thrillers by John le Carre and Robert Ludlum,” Conviser said. “Then I really fell for cyberpunk-type books in college; William Gibson’s Neuromancer remains, by far, my favorite science fiction piece. Both genres look at our world from different angles: In spy thrillers, it’s the world underneath that nobody can see. In science fiction, it’s a possible future. Mix them, and it’s some exciting stuff.” Conviser said that the hybrid of his favorite styles, which he’s come to call “spy-fi,” allows him to address two very different populations of readers. “Of course,” he added, “I’ve been going to both sci-fi and thriller conventions.”
Josh Conviser will hold a signing and discussion of Empyre at Borders in Goleta on Thursday, December 13, at 7 p.m. He will also appear at Borders in downtown Santa Barbara to sign copies of his book on Thursday, November 15, at 7 p.m. For more information, call 899-3668 or visit joshconviser.com.