Q&A with INFLUX Author Daniel Suarez on Literary Influences, Technological Change and Edward Snowden

Daniel Suarez is the author of the New York Times bestseller Daemon, Freedom, Kill Decision, and Influx. A former systems consultant to Fortune 1000 companies, he has designed and developed mission-critical software for the defense, finance, and entertainment industries. With a lifelong interest in both IT systems and creative writing, his high-tech and Sci-Fi thrillers focus on technology-driven change.

Daniel is a past speaker at TED Global, MIT Media Lab, NASA Ames, the Long Now Foundation, and the headquarters of Google, Microsoft, and Amazon — among many others. Self-taught in software development, he holds a BA in English Literature from the University of Delaware. An avid PC and console gamer, his own world-building skills were bolstered through years as a pen & paper role-playing game moderator. He lives in Los Angeles, California.


SF SIGNAL: Who are some of your influences as a writer? Did I detect a note of Issac Asimov’s influence in your Varuna AI?

DANIEL SUAREZ: I was certainly an Asimov fan (the Foundation trilogy especially), but I was a voracious reader throughout my teen and college years. Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, George Orwell, Douglas Adams…and lots more. More recently: William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Verner Vinge, early Michael Crichton, Kim Stanely Robinson, Richard K. Morgan…

But science fiction movies and TV shows were also a big influence early on. Seeing Star Wars back in 1977 had a lot to do with my reading so much sci-fi.

However, I wasn’t consciously influenced in Influx by any particular sci-fi author or story. I’d say all that reading and viewing in earlier years laid a foundation.

SFS: Has being a full time writer changed the way you read, or, for that matter, what you read in your down time?

DS: It’s changed the way I read in one significant way: I now tend to notice the structure and craft of stories more – the meta aspects of writing. That usually leaves me contemplating how (or if) I might have written the story differently. No real changes in my reading tastes, though.

SFS: Judging by the initial announcement of your book’s release date, I’m guessing that you must have finished writing Influx before the Edward Snowden incident. How did that real life news story about a government agency running rough shod over other governments’ sovereignty strike you?

DS: I don’t think most people working in IT security were surprised by the Snowden revelations. Sure the specific details were new information, but many people in government and the hacker subculture have been sounding the alarm for years. The 2007 FBI raid and arrest of NSA whistleblower, Thomas Drake, was the canary in the coal mine for me. Drake was a highly-respected insider who tried to follow the chain of command in reporting NSA law-breaking and only contacted journalists after no action was taken. But for whatever reason the public didn’t respond back then.

SFS: Do you think Influx would have been the same book if you had written it after the Snowden incident?

DS: Absolutely. Again, what I was writing about in Influx – the dangers of unaccountable power, no matter how well intentioned – was already occurring. I think the Snowden situation just made that more relevant to non-technical folks.

SFS: As a science fiction fan from way back, I’ve noticed that the time frame of the genre has markedly “contracted.” In the sixties and seventies, most science fiction stories took place somewhere in a distant, nearly unrecognizable future. In the the eighties, a majority of science fiction stories took place in worlds populated with people not unlike us, centuries into our future. However, a lot of today’s science fiction is set in our own modern world. What’s changed that makes a contemporary setting appeal to authors such as yourself?

DS: I think the proximity of our concerns about the ‘future’ are closer at hand. Technology-powered change is loose inside our perimeter not on some far-off horizon. Technology is disrupting all sorts of business and social institutions – everything from hotels, manufacturing, schools, medicine, energy, transportation, etc. Those radical transformations were largely hypothetical back in the 1970’s. But they’re actually happening now and globally.

I think artists are drawn to exploring terra incognita, and given the rapid rate of change now underway, the visibility on the road ahead is short.

SFS: In your previous books, you’ve used a lot of what I would characterize as “nearly possible” technologies – things like optical head-mounted display and military drones that are just around the corner for us in the real world. Influx is your first book to feature technologies that are really “out there,” like gravity mirrors and hand-held anti-matter weapons. Did that mean more research or less research for you?

DS: I suppose it should have meant less research – given that gravity mirrors don’t actually exist. However, I wanted even physicists and engineers to enjoy Influx, and that meant I took the effort to couch my gravity modification technology in a gray area of current gravitational theory. This included seeking the advice of physicists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in making my fictional gravity mirror tech suspend disbelief. One benefit of that approach is that I finally understand the basic elements of String Theory and Brane Cosmology…


SFS: To date, the common thread uniting your books has been the danger of technology in the driver’s seat. In fact, following the publication of Kill Decision, you delivered a TED Talk entitled “The kill decision shouldn’t belong to a robot.” I’m curious as to whether you specifically set out to address the issue or if it emerged in the course of your writing.

DS: A little of both. I set out to tell exciting stories that explored this issue, and learned even more in the process. But let me clarify: when you say ‘the danger of technology in the driver’s seat’ what that really means is that whomever designed or controls the prevailing technology will be in the driver’s seat. That means a human being(s). Representative government is based on checks and balances, while technology can be a potent centralizer of power (political, physical, financial, etc.). With enough technology, small groups or even individuals can overcome the interests of society at large. Notice how in all of that I haven’t mentioned super-intelligent AI’s or Terminator machines. Instead, I think the risks posed by technology (which are very nearly if not already upon us) lie with machines doing precisely what their owners want – not tech going out of control but tech under control of the few. It should be our goal to keep checks and balances intact despite technological innovations.

SFS: There’s recently been an enormous amount of news coverage on the legal issues surrounding how the law should perceive robots, whether they come in the guise of automated cars or piloted drones. Do you think that we as a society and the United States in particular are doing enough to keep apace of the ethical ramifications of this technology?

DS: I think we’re batting about average. It’s always taken years for legislation to catch up with technological innovations, and lawsuits and rancor inevitably follow in their wake. But this is how it’s done in an open society. Read up on the history of aviation law – and ‘aerial trespass’ in particular – to see just how many legal battles and political debates were required to give rise to FAA standards and global aviation law. The whole framework took decades to build, and that’s normal.

Likewise, ingesting new tech is an on-going process.

SFS: Finally, I’m sure all of our readers are eager for any hints about what’s next for you as an author. Care to share any details about you next novel?

DS: I’m working on two projects at the moment, and I haven’t decided yet which one is going to be finished first.

2 thoughts on “Q&A with INFLUX Author Daniel Suarez on Literary Influences, Technological Change and Edward Snowden”

  1. Daemon is a great read, and not just because it’s set in Houston. The heads up, turn-by-turn navigation display influenced by MMO UIs is a thing of beauty. Maybe Google Glass will bring that too us.

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