Research Notes · 09/26/2014

Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Trevor Richardson writes about Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files from Montag Press.

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Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files is told by Emmett Anders, a member of The Watcher Security Agency, who spies on American citizens through a network of cameras and audio-recording devices built into everyday appliances like televisions, gaming systems, and mobile phones. Through Anders we witness the life of Joe Blake as he grows from an abused kid, to a traveling musician in the final days of American democracy, and finally into the reluctant leader of a revolution.

Researching a book like Dystopia Boy was as fun as it was unnerving. I wanted to show the end of America in real time rather than setting the events in the aftermath of some apocalypse. To do that, I had to decide what would lead us to the end of our democracy. Given the social and political climate during my writing, beginning in 2011, right smack in the middle of Occupy Wall Street, the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and, what hit even closer to home for me, a lot of really maddening stories from the religious right like Westboro Baptist Church and that guy in Florida that got the entire Islamic world in an uproar by threatening to burn the Q’uran, developing the narrative of a downward spiral in America was largely inspired by the current events of the time.

I devoured every bit of news I could find. I listened to NPR instead of my usual classic rock. I watched The Daily Show and started following numerous science and news journals in social media, researching global warming and dropping in little images referencing climate change. I thought of what might happen if the honeybees really did die off in such number that it affected ecology and made reference to my characters temping as pollinators in greenhouses to get some more money for the road. I even got inspired to hint at the “corporatization” of education following the events of the teacher strike in Madison, Wisconsin in 2011. Everything was part of this future I was building because I was imagining today, only magnified.

The dystopian society of my book was built out of the problems of the present going unchecked and growing to the point of tyranny. My biggest tools for the research of Dystopia Boy were two Portland-based radio stations: KBOO and OPB. Everything they reported seemed to spark an idea and it was through their inspiration that the world of my novel began to take shape.

The Watchers themselves were my next dilemma: how can someone view and analyze an entire lifetime of recorded video footage without it actually taking them their entire lives to do it? The answer came when I heard this quote from Ray Kurzweil, self-proclaimed futurist, in the documentary Transcendent Man that said, “Computers are going to keep getting smaller and smaller. Ultimately, they will go inside our bodies and brains and make us healthier, make us smarter.”

It reminded me of something I had conceived of in ninth grade when I first read 1984. Mention of the Thought Police filled my imagination with something much more technological and insidious than Orwell’s Hitler Youth-inspired fanaticism that had children turning in their parents for strange behaviors. As a fourteen year old kid, I wanted more, I wanted the baddies to actually be able to read thoughts and I thought of these microchip implants: thought chips.

The Kurzweil quote helped me to see this Thought Chip idea as a logical evolution of our own technology and, in my story, it is used strictly for military purposes, but I got this feeling that, later on, it could be sold to the public as an alternative to the smart phone and to as much hype. The Watchers, appropriately named, are implanted with a series of microchips to help them process information faster than a normal person.

But the Thought Chip presented problems in itself. I wanted it to seem possible. I researched basic brain science and found that the hippocampus plays a key role in converting memory from short-term to long-term and also is key in spatial awareness. I had found where to put the microchip itself, a promising beginning. Further research led me to decide that the Thought Chip would have to be a series of microchips networked together as a unit with a chip on the optic nerve, a chip to receive audio, and the main data port in the memory center of the brain. The recent developments of computer technology, even compared to what was possible when I was in high school, gave me the rest. I envisioned a central server on the Watcher compound where all the data being processed by these agents could be gathered, stored, and analyzed for future use. WIFI capability to transfer the information was the last step and imagining thoughts getting transferred wirelessly opened up worlds of fun possibilities that would later become central to the plot of the novel.

The last major hurdle of the story came from Joe being Blackfoot Native American and it led to reading a lot of the history and mythology of Joe’s ancestors. As it turned out, there was a perfect myth in Blackfoot legend about their creator god visiting the first people in dreams to teach them how to survive. This idea of “the power of dreams” teaching us, mixed with the presence of the Thought Chip in my story and its potential for some truly cerebral, technology-infused hallucinatory adventuring, helped me to carry things even further into a study of the mind, the history of America, and its inevitable future. I read fables, studied Blackfoot hunting techniques, read about conditions in Blackfoot reservations today, and even included a myth about Poia, a Blackfoot woman who falls in love with one of the “Star People” and is taken to their land in the sky. My main character had already developed a paranoia about extraterrestrials because of some bizarre experiences from his childhood and that, coupled with myths about people from the sky in his own heritage, was too good to pass up.

Despite all of my reading, however, I never felt comfortable with this part of the story because the last thing I wanted was to somehow cheapen the story of the Blackfoot people or Native Americans as a whole. In the end, struggles with the research inspired me to amend my idea, making Joe half Blackfoot and half Caucasian. This went on to inspire a character who grew up outside of his Native American heritage but wished to understand it and, as a result, whatever limitations in my own experience or understanding of the Blackfoot people actually served the story as Joe himself struggled to learn.

They say necessity is the mother of invention and, in the case of Joe Blake, that could not have been more true. There is also something to be said for the “happy accident.” Through the seemingly random choice to make Joe part Native American I had stumbled onto an interesting parallel between the two opposing sides of his heritage. Joe, like America, was descended from two disparate groups of people. Moreover, this future America and the America of the past shared a common story. The greed of white colonists had taken the land from the first Americans and now, through the events of Dystopia Boy, we were watching the greed of American corporations take the same land and freedoms from its own people.

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Trevor D. Richardson is the founder of The Subtopian, a regular writer and editor for the magazine, and the author of American Bastards, Honeysuckle & Irony, and Dystopia Boy. A west coast man by birth, Trevor was brought up in Texas and has since ventured back west and put down roots in Portland, Oregon.