Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Immortality Game by Ted Cross: An Interview and Review

So Ted Cross is one of the more fascinating people I've managed to meet anywhere. Seriously. He is a US diplomat who has lived in capitals around the world, speaks several languages, is a world-class chess player, managed to be an extra in the latest Die-Hard Movie, arranges for his son to play guitar with famous musicians... I mean SERIOUSLY interesting. Definitely more interesting than me, and I mean no disrespect when I say he is PROBABLY more interesting than you...

So when he announced he was releasing his Cyberpunk Thriller, The Immortality Game, I thought it was a great opportunity to introduce all of YOU to him (and his work) too. So today I am interviewing him and then I've got a review of The Immortality Game—it came out yesterday, I believe, but I was lucky enough to get an advance copy.

To orient you a bit...
Great cover, eh?
The Immortality Game blurb: Moscow, 2138. With the world only beginning to recover from the complete societal collapse of the late 21st Century, Zoya scrapes by prepping corpses for funerals and dreams of saving enough money to have a child. When her brother forces her to bring him a mysterious package, she witnesses his murder and finds herself on the run from ruthless mobsters. Frantically trying to stay alive and save her loved ones, Zoya opens the package and discovers two unusual data cards, one that allows her to fight back against the mafia and another which may hold the key to everlasting life.

So without further ado, the Interview:

Hi, Ted. You've got a great rounded story here—great characters, great setting, great plot... where did it start for you?

Hart, thank you so much for hosting me on your blog. I’ve followed it for years and you are one of my favorites.

This story developed in three stages. First it was just a Russian mafia story set in the 1990’s, since that’s when I lived there and experienced how crazy it was. I had several scenes envisioned, but I was never able to figure out a whole arc, so the story languished in my mind for many years.

Later I developed some interesting ideas based on new twists to old science fiction tropes. I had never seen anyone use these ideas before and they felt realistic to me; I could actually imagine a future in which these ideas could end up being real. But having great technology ideas still doesn’t make for a great story, so that idea also went into mothballs.

In 2007 I began writing my first novel, an epic fantasy that I’m still editing after all this time and finally intend to release next year. I develop extensive backstory, and the backstory of one character, the wizard Xax, intrigued me more than any other. He had been a scientist back on Earth and was part of the first ever expedition to settle a habitable planet outside of our solar system. I don’t remember when it happened, but something clicked with his backstory when I realized I could add the mafia storyline into the mix and it would fill in the missing arc I had always needed.

I love this future world you've created where so many people have checked out of reality to live their fantasy lives in their heads. Do you see this as a real possibility? And how did this setup come to you?

I see it happening already, on the metro or walking down the street, with everyone having their heads buried in their mobile devices. I have read several times of gamers in China or Korea dying from binging too much on their games. Imagine if wireless in your mind could touch your senses directly in your brain and cause virtual reality to feel no less real than reality itself. If the virtual world is so much better than ours, it can easily become addictive, so that was where Meshing came from.

Your unlikely set of heroes was delightful and the way you believably gave them the skills they needed in spite of their being so ordinary was creative genius. Did you set out to do that intentionally (making heroes of ordinary people)? Can you share some of your thinking in character development?

Absolutely. Hey, I love a great hero story as much as anyone, so I’m not knocking all the fantastically gifted and gorgeous heroes out there. But I did want something different. I enjoy verisimilitude in just about everything. For example, I don’t really like any art except realism, and my favorite books, even when set in fantasy worlds, are those that portray the story in a realistic manner, such as A Game of Thrones. So both with my fantasy novel and this cyberpunk thriller I strove for realism.

I based Zoya loosely off of my wife at the same age she was when I met her in Moscow. Marcus I chose because I wanted his arc to begin in my home city of Phoenix, and Mexican-Americans are a huge part of the population there, not to mention that they are terribly underrepresented in our entertainment. Tyoma needed to be there because he goes on to become a wizard in later books. Tavik was interesting because I hadn’t intended to do a POV from the side of the antagonists, but I was feeling that they (the mafia) didn’t get to be a big enough part of the storyline early on, so they felt a tad flat and clichéd and it suddenly made sense to me to throw his story into the mix to help flesh their side out.

Note the chess pieces... or the dreamboat, your choice
As a diplomat, I have to think you have some insight into how politics go... and you have such an interesting set up for the politics in the US with the new America West government established in Salt Lake—I'd love to know your thought process arriving at the state of things 120 years in the future. (how much of the idea was in fun and how much political satire/warning?)

I have always been in love with history, and I’ve seen how history repeats itself. Humans have a tendency to ignore problems until the problem becomes too big to ignore. I dream a lot about the future, and in one of my dreams I imagined what might happen in a lot of today’s problems not only continued to grow worse but their peaks converged to all happen at once. What if in just a few short years the Earth had to experience many refugees from rising ocean levels, lack of potable water, a mutation of swine flu that became a pandemic, and general economic collapse due to wealth disparity? I pictured a period I call the Dark Times where everything collapses into utter chaos and ‘survival of the fittest’. This period of warlords lasts for around four decades before governments slowly begin to piece themselves back together again.

When I imagined what might happen to America, I assumed Alaska and Hawaii would break off on their own. I imagined Texas becoming a power and gobbling up some neighbor states to create a hard rightwing dystopia. With America West it was simple. When mind-data interfaces, which I call slots, became advanced enough and cheap enough that governments felt it was in their best interests to provide slots for all citizens, I knew some religious groups would object to that. Since I was dealing with the West, where there are many Mormons, it felt natural to make them be one of the groups that refused to allow their members to get slots. So when Meshing turns into an epidemic, the Mormons are the largest unaffected group and it’s only natural that the leadership of America West falls to them.

The experience in Moscow was so realistic—I could tell it's a city you know, yet you futurized it, too. What was your process for deciding what to change and what to keep the same? In particular, I love the 'elite' living high and the rabble living low, so I'd love it if you'd include about that.

Moscow, both when I lived there and when I have returned for visits, is an extreme of poverty and wealth. You can see fabulous buildings, but they are surrounded by the decay of ancient Soviet architecture. I don’t see much changing, so all I did was imagine a progression forward in time. The center of Moscow is its heart, so it’s natural that the wealthy would turn the center into their ‘realm’, while the rest of the city would be much like today only further decayed. With so many millions of the poor and no new places to build, the wealthy would, in my estimation, create their new realm by building upwards, and that is what turns Moscow into a divide of those who live in the sky and those who dwell in ‘the muck’. And since the metro was such an integral part of life in Moscow, I had to include it. I decided that with the advent of air cars the metro would die out, so to me it seemed natural that the very poorest would move down there and become their own tribe—troglodites, or ‘trogs’ as I call them.

You're a super smart guy—I'm curious which technology you used is really stuff in development and which you totally came up with on your own (at least to your knowledge).

Much of the technology was simply me reading books set far in the future and wondering what that same technology would have been like in its infancy. For example the idea of being able to digitally store the data from a brain and transfer a person to a new body came from reading the Takeshi Kovacs novels by Richard K. Morgan. It’s not a new idea but I particularly enjoyed his usage of it, and the slot technology in my story is my idea for how that may have begun. People might say that a direct mind-data interface is ludicrous, but people have been saying such things are impossible for many centuries only to be proven wrong. The average imagination just isn’t strong enough to comprehend some of the wonders that are coming in the future. But there really are rudimentary mind-data interfaces already in our time! I have been reading stories of implants directly into the brain, allowing scientists to read signals and learn how to interpret them. Of course this technology will advance and become a part of our lives at some point.

And finally, what are you working on now?

Two things—I am editing my first fantasy novel in order to publish it sometime next year, and I have a great new story idea that I’m very excited to write. It is set in the same ‘universe’ but is much, much further in the future. Honestly I think it could be my breakout novel and even turn into a blockbuster movie, that’s how amazing I think the story concept is. Only time will tell if I am delusional!

Tart Review: It is gratifying to me, and it comes along so rarely, that a story has the trifecta of important pieces, all developed well: character, setting and plot. Zoya and Marcus are 'everyman' in different ways, Marcus in recovery from a “Mesh” addiction (that escape to a fantasy world of his choosing where his body is stabilized in a bed and his head hooked into escape instead of reality), son of a very wealthy (but mostly dead) man who had managed to finally eradicate viruses from the online world. Zoya is working poor in a place with DRASTIC disparities between people who can do pretty much anything they want and people barely getting by. And Ted manages to give them realistic motive to get involved and realistic means to 'up their game' to the necessary skills. The setting is fascinating and seems realistic, given the distance in the future, and the plot is highly tense and comes together (several PoV characters start in different places) well.

More than all this though, this is the first book I've read in quite some time that was completely Un-put-downable. I found myself reaching for it every chance I got. Even if you are not a Sci-Fi or Cyberpunk fan normally, the thriller nature of this and the great characters will pull you in.

You can find Ted at these places:

Blog: Cross Words
Facebook page: Ted.Cross.Author
Goodreads author page: Ted Cross
Twitter: tedacross
Amazon: Ted A Cross and The Immortality Game


Ted Cross said...

Hart, I can't say often enough just how awesome you are! I hope I can meet you some day to thank you in person.

Not sure if you are still awake, but I noticed I made a typo--' I imagined what might happen in a lot of today’s problems', the 'in' should be an 'if'. Sorry!

Ivanus said...

What a great interview!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Glad Ted's book didn't disappoint!
I was a film years ago where people spent their time in a virtual reality, and after the movie Wall-E, I can see it happening electronically.

Anonymous said...

Sounds an interesting book. Enjoyed the entire post.

T. Powell Coltrin said...

WAIT, I'm interesting!

Hi, Ted. I must say Your book does sound interesting. having lived in Moscow will make your setting more real to the reader, I tkink.

Thanks, Hart for a great interview.

Helena said...

I definitely have to read Ted's book--it sounds not only like a great thriller but one with some real insight into human societies.

And yes, Ted is entirely too interesting and smart. I am intimidated!

Ted Cross said...

Helena, don't be! I'm very down-to-earth. I even procrastinate too much when I should be writing more!

mshatch said...

Congrats to Ted on what looks like an awesome book and wow, what a cover! Great interview, too, Hart :)

J Lenni Dorner said...

Sounds like an interesting book.

Carol Kilgore said...

Great to meet you, Ted. Your book sounds great.

Hi, Hart! Hope you had a great Thanksgiving.

dolorah said...

Beautiful interview. I read this also and loved the story. Congrats Ted.

Ted Cross said...

Thank you, Dolorah!