November 3, 2016 Book Launch Event

Between 30 and 40 people attended my November 3, 2016 Book Launch Event at the Ferry Building Book Passage. Here is the handout I passed out:

And here is my presentation:

I wrote the first draft of 1% Free in 1993, 23 years ago, about our future in 2042, 25 years from now. I immediately got a set of Triple A maps and started sketching out the world I was building. This handout collects and updates some of those working maps to make the point that 25 years, a quarter century, a generation is a very long time during which everything can dramatically change.

I’ve emphasized this by including three sets of historical maps covering Europe, the Indian subcontinent, and east Asia for 1910, 1935, and 1960 respectively. They’re the colored maps inside the first fold of the handout. Europe in 1910 was divided between feudal empires and modern nation-states, Poland was part of Czarist Russia, and Ireland was a colony of England. By 1935, the first World War had completely changed Europe, with both independent Irish and Polish nations, a Bolshevik Russia, and the beginnings of Naziism in Germany. By 1960, the second World War had again radically rearranged the map of Europe, dividing Germany in particular, and Europe in general between the West and an expanding Soviet Bloc. In the same timespan, the British Crown Colony of India shared the subcontinent with native Indian states until they were subsumed into the British Empire and then violently torn apart into an independent Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. The feudal countries of Siam, China, and Japan in East Asia were imperialized and colonized by British, French, Dutch, and American powers. This provoked national liberation struggles in China and Vietnam, and Japan’s military imperialism, ultimately bringing about a Communist China and North Vietnam, and a demilitarized, hypercapitalist Japan.

A quarter of a century is a surprisingly long time, long enough for governments and borders and economies and sovereignties to dramatically change. Now, go to the black-and-white maps inside the final fold of the handout. By 2042 in my near-future science fiction novel, I project a continuing grim trend toward the violent disintegration of nation-states and national economies, with some notable exceptions. The West has nuked a troublesome Middle East to rid the world of Islamic terrorism. Pakistan and India have fought their own nuclear war. Europe has unified around a softcore muslim-rein fascism, and China has descended into red warlordism. And the southwest of the United States has seceded, joining with the northern states of Mexico to form an independent country. Some might even consider that a positive alternative. The book’s troubling theme of future intercommunal civil war unfortunately coincides with our current electorally-heightened ethnic and racial tensions. I realized that my book’s title, 1% Free, has another meaning because in this future the wealthiest 1% of the world’s population is doing all it can to free itself of nation-states, economic regulation, and even the planet itself by setting up residence in orbiting space stations.

The novel’s immediate action happens in a San Francisco fractured by earthquakes and social divisions teetering on social war, and in a Los Angeles devastated by earthquakes, riots, and failed rebellions, in a highly militarized United States. The action converges in the socialist Palm Springs Free City surrounded by the socialist Republic of Aztlan. Throughout the story I’ve woven the activities of a revolutionary anarchist movement called Synarky, organized around the biological metaphor of symbiosis. This is an homage to Luis Buñuel’s film “That Obscure Object of Desire” in which a shadowy terrorist group called the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus constantly blows things up off-camera. I’ve also been influenced by great near-future speculative fiction, from John Brunner’s multi-dimensional worldbuilding technique in “Stand on Zanzibar” and “The Sheep Look Up” to David Brin’s overly optimistic extrapolative fiction in “Earth” and “Existence.” Brunner used what he called the “Innis Mode” to create a mashup of fictional narrative with slogans, snatches of conversation, advertising copy, song lyrics, extracts from newspapers and books, and other cultural detritus.

Here is a snippet from 1% Free of a news broadcast from a fictitious media network which refers to 400 Rabbits, a guerrilla organization named after the Aztec gods of drunkenness.


In case you are just joining us, we repeat our top news story. At 8:34 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time, the private American bernal space station Columbia fell from orbit, apparently due to the explosion of its nuclear power plant. Thousands of people have been killed, including some of the wealthiest individuals in the world. The trillion-dollar space station’s fiery remnants have scattered across the Midwestern United States, causing additional loss of life and property damage. At 11:21 a.m., this network received a faxed communiqué from 400 Rabbits, specifically the ‘Rachel Carson Symbiont,’ claiming responsibility for downing the Columbia station through the use of a miniaturized orbiting vacuum gun that fired depleted uranium ammunition. We have been unable to independently verify this claim.

Observations from the International Space Station and the Chinese Space Station confirm the nature of this catastrophe, although not its causes. A Gabbard diagram provided by NASA indicates that fragments of the Columbia space station may have crossed paths with the Nirgal Mars fleet while falling from orbit. The European Space Agency reports that components of the Nirgal fleet have in fact been damaged. The Private Orbital Syndicate—comprised of habitat o’neill cylinders, bernal spheres, and Stanford tori located in earth, lunar, and Lagrange orbits—have not commented to the press other than to say that the Columbia disaster is a tragedy of immense proportions. The governments of the United States, the European Union, and the Russian Federation, as well as their respective security agencies, have been placed on the highest alert.

Apparently, the FBI are taking the 400 Rabbits communiqué seriously. A spokesman for the Bureau says that obsolete yet still commercially available Delta Three and Pegasus rocket parts were found three years ago at a site connected with 400 Rabbits in northern Canada. Depleted uranium materials were also found at the site. The FBI further revealed that the Columbia nuclear reactor explosion might have been caused by the simultaneous failure of its primary and backup cooling systems. Anonymous sources contacted by this network claim that black-box feeds from the station recorded three unidentified impacts on the reactor’s outer shield just prior to the explosion. Meanwhile, in New York City an hour ago, representatives for the Buffett, Walton, and Soros families announced memorial services…


By painting such a bleak picture of humanity’s future I’m not trying to muddle the commonly-held distinction between “escapist” genre fiction and serious literary fiction. I grew up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett, not just genre fiction but pulp fiction, and I enjoy playing with their conventions as a writer, from the McGuffins and hard-boiled gumshoes of noir to a galaxy teeming with alien life and extraterrestrial civilizations in science fiction. I’m good with plot and action thanks to my admiration of genre fiction; my problem is all the extraneous description and detail I want to include. I call it the kitchen sink effect. I write a monthly political column for Maximum Rocknroll. Maximum Rocknroll is an internationally distributed punk rock fanzine headquartered in San Francisco that’s been around in print form since 1982. I’ve written my columns since 1993, and that kind of expository non-fiction essay writing is the easiest for me to do. That’s about 250 columns of political commentary. Compared to that, my fiction output consists of about a dozen short stories plus two novels. While I find fiction writing more rewarding, it’s also much more difficult. Finishing a novel is a grueling, time-consuming task. Hence my tendency to pack this novel full of sub-themes and sidebars and seemingly superfluous minutia. I have few opportunities to incorporate interesting, creative detail, so I tend to go overboard.

In this book, I separated out the longest tangential segments into separate chapters I call Interstitial Materials and then interspersed them between the regular, storyline chapters in order to streamline the action. These fake non-fiction sections resemble my monthly Maximum Rocknroll columns.

Apropos of genre fiction, the one trope I hope I haven’t succumbed to is the tendency to write stock characters. I’ve found character development to be the hardest aspect of fiction writing. After cutting the number of main characters from six to three early on, every subsequent rewrite has focused on refining them. Plot and action have always come easy, but embedding realistically drawn characters in a realistically defined world helps ground the plot. The trite observation that every fictional character is simply a version of the author doesn’t excuse the writer from using empathy, research, dialogue and dialect, and imagination to create believable characters. My two protagonists are a Latino detective named Jimmy Hidalgo and a woman salvage operator named Becky Wiley, and despite my trepidations in not being hispanic or female or for that matter having any experience in their respective portrayed professions, I feel obligated to use every tool available in my writing kit to craft realistic characters. Part of my best writing practice is correlating the world I’ve built with the characters I’ve created. From the War on Terror we are presently engaged in to America’s second civil war depicted in 2042, the United States fights two additional major wars in my novel, so I depict a highly militarized society shaped by endless war where the military and the government are the dominant social institutions. But this also means that all my main characters suffer from some degree of PTSD.

These next two readings involve my two protagonists at action points about midway through the plot. Becky Wiley is a salvage operator in Los Angeles who recovers a mysterious cargo, one of the story’s plot devices. In order to figure out what she’s found, she employs two researchers to dig up information on the salvage. ORB 30 is an anonymous, entirely online entity while Janie is Becky’s friend she communicates with online. Now, from the book.


A static-riddled call from ORB 30 came through while Becky was in the hangar.

“I’m off the job.” The red-and-black spider in the Virtual Reality call danced nervously around its web, apparently fuming at Becky’s cryptoKIT rigmarole, and scared shitless. Its sex-neutral voice was shrill and panicky, yet ORB 30 had clearly taken the precaution of reaching Becky’s line from a randomized satellite channel. “I quit. I’m refunding your money immediately. Forget you ever had me do this search.”

“Not so fast.” She faced off with ORB 30’s VR avatar in its cyber lair. “What’s got you spooked?”

“Your girl. That Janie. She’s been snuffed.”

“What the…?” Becky recalled Janie, in her Blue Angel hologram overlay, and then turned on the agitated virtual insect once again. “How do you know?”

The spider’s image seemed to shrink against the silver web. A fireball of static rolled across the bottom of the virtuals. Fastlife images, mostly of porn, flickered along the margins.

“When I started searching, somebody was already ahead of me. Your girl. So I decided to piggyback. No use busting butt when someone else is hot on doing all the work.”

“You were gonna charge me for pirating Janie’s work?”

“Hey, don’t get so steamed. If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t know what happened to her.”

“What did happen to her?”

“Her KIT crashed at seven this morning. Then I intercepted some LAPD and FBI chatter. Shot, resisting arrest. DOA at Nucity General.”

Becky felt sick. She noticed she was holding her breath.

“All right, get the hell outta here,” Becky said.

Gratefully, ORB 30 dissipated into red-black mist and silver vapors that succumbed to a storm of visual static. Becky stayed online to access the LAPD’s digital blotter and then the L.A. Times newspaper.

Janie, aka Janelle Eileen Franklin, was wanted for digital embezzlement in New York, Florida, Illinois, Nebraska, and Oregon. She was packing a 9mm semiautomatic when she met LAPD Lieutenant Desmond Graves and FBI Special Agent Charles Morrison in the foyer of her West Hollywood home. Janie managed to wing Morrison before Graves dropped her with three shots to the chest from his .357 Magnum. There hadn’t been enough left of her heart for Nucity General to do anything except pull a sheet over the body.

Neither Graves nor Morrison had commented to the press. Becky had no doubt why they’d been at Janie’s. They hadn’t been after an embezzler. Hadn’t even known who Janie was. No, they’d been running down leads on the salvage. In hiring Janie to dig up information on the salvage, Becky had set up her friend and favorite bio hacker for a kill.

The ghost transmission slipped in before she logged off, easing past all of Mother Colony’s digital firewalls, security, and encryption. A grainy cam image of Janie, camouflaged in her slinky Marlene Dietrich hologram, descended the stairs of her West Hollywood hillside home toward two men, one black and the other white, one Morrison, the other Graves. At the bottom of the steps, the Blue Angel phantasm lept one way and Janie lept the other. Morrison fired at the holo and Janie spun the FBI agent around with a shot to the right arm. Graves coldly and methodically pumped three rounds into Janie before the ghost transmission evaporated, leaving behind the russet raven logo of the ghost’s hackware. These were the last harrowing moments of Janie’s life, no doubt captured by some type of CopWatch witness surveillance software. If Becky knew Janie, the ghost was meant as a final testament and had arrived by the most circuitous of digital routes, guaranteeing the message’s anonymity.

There was not a moment for grief. Irreversible commitment gripped Becky.


In my next quote Jimmy Hidalgo is a private investigator in San Francisco who is chasing an alien-engineered serial killer named Angela, stage name Angel Cakes. Angie’s first victim was Jimmy’s best friend.


Jimmy started climbing the intricate fiberplast lattice at two in the morning. The Forbidden City squatter colony swayed above his head. He badly wanted a smoke. The colony’s layered, fiber-reinforced plastic nests were strung between the decaying iron and concrete pylons beneath a stand-alone, three-block-long section of collapsed Interstate 80. Spray-painted “1.26.87,” this dark, sullen freeway fragment was near the crumbling ruins of the abandoned design center at the Highway 101 interchange, in the heart of the SOMA wildzone.

“The Deep 400s,” the neighborhood was called, for the 400 Rabbits symbiont that had launched a midnight guerrilla attack from a blighted Bryant and 6th Street warehouse almost four years ago. A pair of miniature shoulder-fired cruise missiles with semtex warheads were fired at the affluent Treasure Island tower. The missiles had flown on parallel paths, following the broken line of the quake-buckled freeway and skeletal Bay Bridge. They took out six floors in the middle of the tower. Seventeen of the world’s wealthiest people were among the thirty-two dead. The double blast, sudden and loud, had knocked Jimmy out of bed in Oakland. He’d watched the incandescent inferno from his living room, reflected in a still, black Lake Merritt. Damage from the explosions closed off full access to the tower’s upper floors for more than three years while repairs were made.

Dim lights peered here and there through the tangled habitat of the Forbidden City colony overhead, allowing Jimmy to pinpoint the entrance as he climbed. He could smell burning wax on a fetid wind.

He had stopped to ask directions from the tattooed and scarified street punk tending to the pyramids of candles illuminating the starwalk shrine a half block away, on 7th near Harrison. The intricate silvered face of the fully restored Treasure Island tower rose over silhouetted trees on ink-black Yerba Buena Island. Three new, obsidian-black antimissile and antiaircraft launch rings girded the ultimate gated community for the super wealthy.

“Harrison and Sherman, westside entrance,” the punk had said. “Third cocoon on the left, after the turn.”

He fit in the earplugs, and had both the gun and tranquilizer quickshot drawn and ready before stepping into squatter territory. Unfortunately, everything was twists and turns in this slinky, unsteady hallway. He arbitrarily picked a sharper turn in the labyrinth, then counted down. He took a deep breath and slammed through the clinging door flap.

A beefy young man with long, stringy hair sat in his underwear amidst scattered garbage, smoking a pipe.

“Hey, man, you got no right busting in here,” he said, getting easily to his feet. Jimmy noticed a robe embossed with the Casino’s logo on the habitat webbing’s undulating floor.

“Where’s Angel Cakes?” Jimmy jerked his gun with one hand and yanked out an earplug with the other, still crouching, because the ever-shifting floor wouldn’t permit a defensive stance. “Angela Katherine Steele?”

“I didn’t invite you,” the kid shouted, brandishing the pipe as he took a step. With the build of a wrestler, he had ten centimeters and fifty kilos on Jimmy. “Man, you better just leave. Now!”

The pungent eucalyptus smell, the violent flush in the young man’s cheeks, his swollen, unfocused eyes—they all indicated the kid’s thelema addiction. The drug produced feelings of excessive confidence, if not invulnerability. Jimmy knew the kid would feel neither pain nor fear, so when the kid took another step toward him, Jimmy shot him in the left leg. He’d aimed for and hit the meaty part of the thigh.

“Whyth’helldidjadothat?” The kid fell, and laughed.

Jimmy grabbed him, threw a chokehold around his neck, and jammed the gun against his right temple.

“Angie,” he demanded. “Angel Cakes.”

“Long gone, man.” The young man giggled. Blood splattered on the webbing. “Hey man, lighten up. She ain’t going back to the God Hive. She left for the Free City ages ago.”

“Palm Springs?”

“Got it, man.” The kid chortled. “If you’re going after her, better beware. She got a black widow mouth.”

The kid laughed hysterically. Jimmy dumped him and crawled out the way he had come. He called 911 on his audio skein to report the shooting, uncertain anyone would respond.


One of the novel’s subthemes is what I started this speech with; the importance of maps to the plot. The two main characters use digital maps that figure into their separate stories, and there is a long article on the problems of mapping the galaxy as one of my Interstitial Materials.

Mapping prior to the modern era was more about mythology than about accuracy. It was more about human or divine importance than quantitative distance. Maps came with the warning that “here be dragons” or more classically “here are lions” in the dangerous, unexplored, and uncharted territories depicted. With the rise of Renaissance perspective signaling the objectification and quantification of space as a beginning of the transition to the modern world of capitalism and nation-states, the groundbreaking cartographic techniques of Gerardus Mercator could be anticipated. Mercator’s projection enabled him to overlay an accurate grid of straight lines across his maps with mathematical precision, allowing him to draw a line of bearing across the surface of a flat plane represented by the map, a boon to imperial exploration and commercial navigation. Kingsley Amis once defined science fiction as “that class of prose narrative treating of a situation that could not arise in the world we know, but which is hypothesized on the basis of some innovation in science or technology, or pseudo-science or pseudo-technology, whether human or extra-terrestrial in origin.” The cross pollination of science and imagination, hinted at in Amis’s book “New Maps of Hell,” lets the science fiction writer like me reintroduce the dragons into my maps of the future.

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