Just over ten years ago, Chris Hawke, for the Associated Press, posted a news story on CBS news that changed my life. He almost assuredly doesn’t know it, but that simple story, titled “Coming Soon: Immortality?” caused the greatest wave of creativity that I’ve ever experienced to crash over me, and it birthed the fictional Post-Human world that turned me into a best-selling novelist. It’s not hyperbole to say it utterly changed my life…but the change took a lot more time than people might think.
It was February 13th, 2005. I was living in Vancouver, British Columbia and I was a twenty-seven year old graduate student in English Lit. I already had an honours Bachelor degree in the same subject from the same institution on my wall, but I was working away at a second degree, and generally not fitting in. There was a myriad of reasons for this, but probably the most prominent was that novelists think differently than critics (and I’m a natural novelist) and though writing essays helped me hone my critical thinking skills, I had a habit of wanting to do things differently. I wanted to stand out, and anyone who has ever been in graduate school for English Lit (and from what I’ve heard, just about every other discipline) standing out is never a good idea…in grad school, one wants to fit in!
I’d had a little bit of exposure to science fiction during my undergrad years, but not surprisingly, sci-fi was treated as low brow. The word “genre” was a synonym for “idiotic” or “commercial.” One undergrad course got around this by relabeling the one and only sci-fi course offered at UBC as “Dystopian Fiction.” From what I can recall, A Clockwork Orange, 1984, White Noise, Neuromancer, and the shooting script for The Matrix made up the reading list. Neuromancer and The Matrix were the two tales that truly captured my imagination, and though I’ve heard with my own two ears Neuromancer author William Gibson (the man who coined the term “cyberspace”) refer to himself as “plot-challenged,” one thing no one can say about it him, including himself even at his most self-critical, is that he is not way ahead of his time; in fact, he was and still is, decades ahead. It was while watching a documentary about Gibson called “No Maps for These Territories,” (a reference to a Jean Baudrillard piece titled, Simulacra and Simulation that is featured in The Matrix film) that I first heard the term, post-human. The interviewer asked Gibson what post-human meant in his view, and Gibson’s answer blew me away. He described an end to economics as we know it, nanotechnology ending biological death as well as economic scarcity—a future in which post-humans could have anything they wanted just by downloading it and having it constructed for them on a molecular scale. When the interviewer followed this up with the obvious, “Why aren’t you writing about this?” Gibson answered, “I can’t get my head around it.” And at the time, I couldn’t get my head around it either. His description had taken my breath away, but I simply couldn’t see how a plot could be constructed in a world that fantastic—at least not one that would make any sense to human readers—or to me.
About six months later, now a graduate student making my way through a series of courses that I didn’t feel any connection to, I was surfing the major news sites on a study break when I saw Chris Hawke’s article about immortality and clicked on it immediately. Immortality has long been a keen interest of mine, something that I’d reasoned was inevitable after taking a third year genetics course at UBC, but a news story with an update sounded like an interesting distraction that night. I never could’ve expected what happened next.
First, I saw a picture of Pamela Anderson with two small dogs as the tag photo above the story. Huh? (Was Pamela Anderson’s aging a big media concern in 2005? Someone would have to check that out for me. I’m at a loss.) But though the picture really seems silly and painfully out of place in retrospect, the little known scientist and inventor that the article was really about, Ray Kurzweil, captured my imagination. He was 57 at the time and was taking 250 pills daily to aggressively fine-tune his biology, and he was sure that measures to increase longevity in biological humans were only decades away. But while I imagined at first that he was envisioning a new series of wonder drugs that could increase the length of telomeres (put simply, our cellular clocks) instead, what amazed me was his description of a world where nanobots inside of our bodies would optimize our biology, working hand-in-hand with our bodies’ systems to keep us young, but also to connect us to the Internet, and we’d be able to upgrade our bodies through over-the-air downloads. Wow. Now here was outside-the-box thinking.
Finally, here was a man who could get his head around the post-human world (and keep in mind, this was 2005, pre-iPhone, when most of us didn’t even have wi-fi). Where Gibson and I had previously failed, Ray had succeeded. And because of his incredible track record of predicting future advances in information technology and his status as a Hall of Fame inventor, having invented the flatbed scanner most of us still have in our homes (he’d go on to eventually become the Director of Engineering at Google) his words had the power to make me take notice. I didn’t dismiss them as easily as so many people did (and still do). This vision made sense to me, scientifically and philosophically. A lot of sense—and I finally had the foothold I needed to imagine a post-human world that would make sense to readers.
In literally less than a second, the entire plot of Post-Human came to me. I got up from the computer I’d been reading the article on, went to my lap top, and started writing out the outline for Post-Human right then and there. It took me about an hour to get a general outline complete, which I based around the screenplay structure that had been hammered into my head in UBC’s Creative Writing department. The outline is extraordinarily similar to the plot, scene-for-scene, that appears in Post-Human (though one notable difference was I had imagined James having a daughter at the outset…how weird would that have been?)
And I still had enough energy to write the first chapter of my first novel before the night was through. What you see in that book’s first chapter is still 95% the same as what I wrote that night, a few editing tweaks aside, on February 13th, 2005, over ten frick’n years ago. The vision was that complete. On the strength of one simple news story about an extraordinary man with an extraordinary vision for the future, all your favourite characters, James Keats, Old-timer, Thel, Rich, Djanet, the A.I., Aldous and more were born.
I don’t know if I’ll ever experience a creative flood like that again. I was naive, which caused me to be brave, and I can tell you that I knew that night that I had a hit. I had the hit. I had what every writer dreams of: a story to tell that is epic, original, and to which I knew a very large audience would relate to. After all, it’s the story of humanity, and it’s the story of the future, and we can’t escape either. One wonders how my life would’ve gone if I’d simply not checked out a simple mainstream news site that night, and instead maybe made a sandwich or took a nap. I really don’t know if Post-Human would ever have happened. It was serendipitous to say the least, and every serious Post-Human fan should grab that story, find Chris Hawke and shoot him a thank you note! I know I will be writing to him tonight!
I was pretty darn busy with grad school to say the least, so I stopped writing a few weeks later when I was about halfway through the book and focused on school for the next two years. While working extremely hard on my thesis, I kept telling myself that “When this is over, I’m going to use this same research and writing discipline and energy for one more month and finish that novel I started two years ago.” I felt I owed it to myself after all the years of schooling, the debt I’d incurred as a result, and the extremes I’d pushed my body to so that I could achieve the grades I did. And so, after completing my thesis in 2007, without enough money to pay my rent and with only a couple of part-time jobs that paid peanuts (I even filmed a few weddings using a friend’s borrowed camera to help make ends meet) I dedicated myself to heading to a now-defunct little coffee shop called “Think” a block away from my studio apartment and writing for six hours a day until I finished the first draft of Post-Human. It was complete by that Fall, and though I did try to send it to a couple of agents, I was turned down before they’d even seen the manuscript. “Science fiction doesn’t sell,” they told me. So the dream went back on hold while I looked for employment and battled the credit card company while trying to make rent each month.
It didn’t take long to turn my financial problems around, however. Contrary to popular belief, a Master’s in English Lit is a VERY employable degree, and I found I was in a position to turn down job offers regularly. I considered getting a PhD but didn’t like the idea of four more years of grad school (let alone the debt) so I finally settled on becoming a private tutor. It wasn’t ambitious, but I was my own boss (and people who know me know how important that is to me) and I could make enough to sustain myself while I kept at my dream of being a novelist.
Interestingly, the follow up to Post-Human wasn’t another book in that series, however. My second book was actually The God Killers, which is my one and only horror novel, and the only novel I currently have on the market that isn’t part of the Post-Human series. I was proud of it, but Post-Human kept calling me back. There seemed to be limitless possibilities with the characters I’d been blessed to have imagined on that first fateful night, and I wanted to go back to visit them. I truly love writing, conjuring stories, and entertaining readers with stories that push the bounds of philosophy, physics, future-science, and the human imagination. My training in classical lit, as well as in modern screenplay, seemed to fit perfectly as I worked out the epic themes that would cross the entire series if I was ever lucky enough to write it all to completion. It was tough, as I was teaching six days a week, but I made time to write, and by 2010, I had three completed novels (and met and married the love of my life…ya’ll know her as Jenny!)
And then, in late 2011, I read the second news article that changed my life. This time, it was on The Guardian, and it was about the second ever “indie” ebook author to sell a million books on amazon.com, Amanda Hocking. Amanda’s story changed my life just as much as Ray’s had earlier, but rather than inspiring a completely new novel, she inspired me to take control of my writing career and directly publish Post-Human on the Kindle, bypassing the gatekeepers that were, let’s face it, still looking for the safe bet, and were still convinced science fiction didn’t sell. I was just as energized as I’d been that fateful night in 2005, researching along with Jenny how to format an ebook and publish my three existing novels for the Kindle audience. By December, our books were up, and we sold exactly 100 books that month. In January, we were lagging a bit, until we did our first free promotion, which boosted our popularity and visibility so much that we started selling 140 copies a day! While this wasn’t enough to quit my day job (Amazon only gives 35 cents per sale on a 99 cent ebook) it was still a phenomenal experience. An author that hadn’t even been able to get a publisher to read his work, let alone reject it, was selling thousands of books each month and getting excellent reviews. To me, it felt like a dream come true!
Since then, it has only gotten better. But I won’t lie. The ebook market has changed for the worse, there are challenges that are monumental, and gatekeepers are creeping back into the equation, but since 2012, we’ve had approximately 450,000 downloads of the series, and I expect to break half-a-million in the first half of 2015. Even better, Jenny and I have worked hard to become what we believe is the best indie marketing team in all of science fiction. If you check out our Post-Human collected edition, containing books 1-4 on amazon.com today, you’ll see we’re in the top 40 out of over 90,000 titles in science fiction in popularity. We’re the only book that high that hasn’t had any inside help from Amazon with Amazon special promos, and we’ve pulled that off by playing the long-term game, building our Post-Human tribe reader by reader (many of whom have become some of my new best friends along the way) and continuing to turn out a series that I’m very proud of and that the tribe has supported with now over 1,000 reviews on the 1-4 edition alone!
It’s an amazing story, perhaps worthy of a short novel all on its own, and I owe it all to a decision to surf the web one night in 2005, over ten years ago! Post-Human is definitely not an overnight success…it’s been a long battle, but the fact that we keep attracting the hippest, kindest, most savvy readers in science fiction into the tribe fills me with confidence that this is just the beginning of this journey. We still have the final two books of the series to come, the graphic novel, and the whole thing just won’t be complete until it has a film adaptation! And as long as I’m still breathing, all of those things are on the way.
(Plus I have a completed unpublished novel with a publisher that has been held up for quite a while…but it will be published, rest-assured).
So ten years after it was first conceived, I thought it was the right time to take a moment, look back at the journey, celebrate what we’ve achieved together (more than any other series without direct marketing help from the Amazon platform…nothing to sniff at!) and imagine what we could (and will) still achieve when Amazon does help us out…and they will, because the Post-Human tribe has become too big and too supportive to ignore.
Thank you, Chris Hawke, Ray Kurzweil, Amanda Hocking, and the entire Post-Human tribe, now hundreds of thousands strong, for making my dream of becoming a full-time storyteller come true! Bumpy as the road may seem in the moment, in retrospect, it seems like we’re right on schedule. I can’t wait for what’s to come and the decades we still have ahead of us!