Bruce McCabe is an expert on human factors in technology adoption and innovation, as well as the author of more than 300 essays, magazine and journal articles. So he is more than qualified to write a thought-provoking techno-thriller – which is what he’s done with his first novel, Skinjob. Skinjob is set in a chilling version of the near future. Silicon Valley has taken virtual sex to the extreme, encouraging men to act out their darkest, most violent sexual fantasies. Militant feminists and the churches are bitterly opposed to these latest technological developments, but powerful corporations are battling for market control. This is an action-packed story not for faint of heart. We caught up with Bruce at the launch of his book to ask him about the books he loves and the book he wrote.
Bruce, you are no stranger to writing, but this is your first venture into fiction. Your background is serious IT, including a PhD in Computer Science and years of hands-on experience as an IT industry analyst and commentator. This is not a typical background for a lover of books – especially fiction – so before we ask you about your own storytelling, we’d like to find out a little bit about you as a reader. What are your earliest memories of reading?
Reading and books have been a fundamental part of my life for as long as I can remember. My father used to read adventure stories to us, one chapter each night before bedtime. I got into comics in a big way, especially the superhero staples from Marvel and DC, but at an early age books became an irresistible escape into new worlds. Dinosaurs, pirates and underwater exploration were big themes! I accumulated a huge collection of How & Why Wonder books, then it was the Famous Five series, and after that it was Biggles and the Hardy Boys.
Did you dream about being a writer or is that something that occurred to you later in your life?
Part of me always wanted to write. I admired good writing and writers at school, but at the time science was more important (and offered better career prospects!). The short pieces I did write went into a bottom drawer. It was a decade before I thought anything was good enough to publish. In the mid ’90s a journalist told me I had to give it a go and wouldn’t take no for an answer, and suddenly I found myself writing magazine columns in my spare time.
As somebody who is so immersed in a fast-changing industry, without a doubt you must be immersed in reading and acquiring knowledge all the time. What kind of books do you enjoy reading for pleasure the most?
Actually, I do very little reading about technology. My professional interest is in human issues relating to technology adoption and innovation, and I draw almost all that knowledge from direct observation, interviews and conversations, especially with early adopters and with scientists in various labs. For pleasure I read thrillers, classics, all kinds of history (especially first accounts), science fiction, horror, crime, spy novels, biographies, you name it! I usually have three or four on the go and finish at least one each week. Books that gave me a lot of pleasure recently include Homicide by David Simon, Lustrum by Robert Harris, Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, The Racketeer by John Grisham, A Rumor of War by Phil Caputo and a re-read of Anthony Burgess’s brilliant A Clockwork Orange.
If you could be one fictional character, who would you choose and why?
That is a real tough one – I’ve no idea! Someone with lots of guts, glamour and girls, probably. Is James Bond too shallow an answer? Certainly not Jack Reacher. Too lonely and detached!
Where did the idea for Skinjob come from?
The seed was planted many years ago when I saw a demonstration of ‘voice stress detection’ technology being used in insurance company call centres. The software sounded a beep in the operator’s earpiece to warn when a claimant might be lying. It was spooky, seemed kind of nasty, and it stuck with me. It was immediately clear to me that, as computers got more powerful, such technology would percolate into other fields and other devices. When I heard about the military trials of handheld lie detectors in Afghanistan (referenced in the opening pages of Skinjob) I decided I had to write about where this was going.
Did you have a pretty clear idea of the whole plot before you started writing or did the story take on a life of its own when you started writing?
I just started writing. I had a very clear idea of the ‘what-if’ I wanted to explore, a vague idea of how it might end, and that’s it! At various times I did stop to map things out, in order to get an overall view of structure and balance and logic, but I inevitably departed from the plan as soon as I resumed typing! Mostly, the characters found their own way.
What would you like the readers to walk away with when they finish your novel?
First and foremost, I want them feeling exhausted, happy and slightly dazed because they just crossed the finish line of an old-fashioned ‘ripping yarn’! Yes, the novel contains strong messages about themes I think important, but entertainment comes before everything else. I want readers to say they enjoyed the ride. After that, if they end up asking themselves one or two new questions about where we are headed, especially with respect to transparency, truth or sexuality, that’s a double bonus.
Technology plays a major role within Skinjob, and some of it sounds pretty frightening. Do any developments in real-life technology scare you?
Lots! Some of the technologies in Skinjob incorporate a fair bit of extrapolation, but all of them are real and under development in labs right now. So the novel is testament to how much time I spend thinking about the ‘bad’ possibilities in many technologies. In real life, of course, the ‘good’ possibilities can be even more profound, and often go underreported. In genomics, for example, you can choose to dwell on the ethics of prenatal DNA profiling, which can be scary, or you can celebrate the viruses being engineered to attack cancer cells, a development that promises to turn some types of cancer into manageable diseases within ten years. I mean, wow!
What author or what books would you recommend for readers who love techno-thrillers?
Michael Crichton’s novels are all classics. Everyone knows Jurassic Park, which is a fantastic, beautifully polished story, but some of his earlier novels, like Andromeda Strain, Prey, Binary and The Terminal Man really stand up well today. Each is a good, simple story based on one great big premise! John Birmingham and Matthew Reilly are modern giants of the genre. An unusual one I read recently was Robert Harris’s Fear Index. I’ve enjoyed all his novels, which are mostly historical twists of one kind or another, but this was a departure from his usual fare and an honest-to-goodness, thoroughly believable techno-thriller. A great read.