Secret Preface

from Gamma

Welcome to the preface I could not bear to add to γ,  a novel already overstuffed with words. Since the manuscript has had a long history, I wanted to write a preface to put the final version in perspective, but if the book is worth reading, I decided, it should be able to stand on its own.

So these notes are only for the overly curious. They describe the early genesis of the book and the transformations wrought by years of feedback, neglect, and the aging mind of the author himself.

When I began work on the book in 1998, in a novella class at the University of Texas, I imagined myself cramming the screams of the American people into a bomb casing, primed to shatter the cheery coffeeshops of the 90's tech boom upon detonation/publication. The bomb casing—always meant to be torn apart by the contents—looked something like this:

 *  Copyright (C) 2023 Imipolex-G Productions. All Rights Reserved.
 *  Attitude.h: interface for the Attitude class.

#ifndef AFX_ATTITUDE_H__F0ACA9A1_B74C_11D1_B806_006008172864__INCLUDED_
#define AFX_ATTITUDE_H__F0ACA9A1_B74C_11D1_B806_006008172864__INCLUDED_

// Includes....
#include "GSNoumenon.h"
#include "GSCharacter.h"
#include "GSItem.h"
#include "GSPlace.h"     
#include "utils.h"
#include "afx.h"
#include "stdio.h"

I was satirizing the garish, clumsy, corporate storytelling of '90's video games, framed as a pitch to a Hollywood game producer by the name of William Shatner (literally):

#include "ShannonBot.h"   // bot for Shannon
#include "KyleBot.h"   // bot for Kyle
#include "VCBot.h"   // bot for the VC

//   SHATNER: Something still... bothers me about him.  I have your proposal...
//        It’s on my desk somewhere.  Let me see... I just don't CARE very much,
//        you know.

//   BRADFORD: I think the problem you're having is that his character may seem
//        somewhat situational, kinda thing.

//   SHATNER: I... might put it that way.  Perhaps.  Oh, here it is.

//   BRADFORD: Remember that the Feds used only minority families in this
//        experiment.  Shannon Jones is black.  He’s from the 'hood.  That's what
//        makes him different.  He was a poor kid, but they gave him the DNA of
//        a Kennedy.

//   SHATNER: I like the race angle.  That... could be interesting.  Mmmmmm.
//        But what do you guys know about the 'hood?  Is this something Imipolex-G
//        can pull off?

//   BRADFORD: We're compiling a bible on inner-city settings.  A team of three
//        researchers -- that angle's covered.  We're a content company.  All of our
//        titles have great content.

//   I was the "three researchers," me, myself, and I, and all three of us wanted
//   Bradford to snow Shatner any way he knew how.

Whether I could have gotten away with this, I don't know.  But the idea was that the intellectual, cynical process of mining entertainment from the "urban pastoral," as I like to call it, would strain to contain this urban world until finally being ripped apart in an explosion of bombast at the end.  The reader perceived this as a "header file" from a storytelling game engine, a file called "Attitude.h" -- a formalization of human emotion set up to be destroyed by it.

What this literary frame created -- and what is missing from γ -- is an ironic distance. The characters in γ were initially meant to be caricatures created by a somewhat misguided game designer, clichés even. This approach undoubtedly proceeded in part from my own shyness regarding the material. Who was I to describe the feelings of a street prostitute? A gang member? An immigrant? I was just learning to step outside of myself as a fiction writer and didn't yet have my footing.

Therefore, some of the material in the book—though, for the record, the prison-bus prostitution caper at the beginning (to pick one example) proceeds from an actual news story about California prisons—still strikes me as somewhat lurid, especially now that it has to stand on its own.

So, why did I strip out the computer code and William Shatner? Many reasons. From the very beginning (imagine this . . .) I don't think anyone got the joke. It was a super-hilarious stunt to me, but gradually I began to recognize that embedding an entire novel inside a C++ header file wasn't going to get the attention of the New York Times Book Review. Also, once I began to work professionally as a game writer in 1999, writing very similar material into a real-life video game, the satire began to feel a little flimsy. Even with rewriting, the thrust of the story continued to feel like the perspective of an outsider looking in (which is what I was in 1998).

So I ripped that stuff out and set to work making the novel stand on its own—a reasonable task, considering that the storyline was always meant to overwhelm the commentary. A couple of agents expressed interest, providing guidance on the rewrites. Time passed. I didn't take all of the advice, such as the suggestion, a couple years after 9/11, that I completely remove Jalil from the novel, since Americans would never sympathize with a Muslim character . . . but there were legitimate weaknesses to be addressed, too. Thematically, the novel was—and remains—so overly ambitious, even grandiose, that overt conflict often competes with linguistic and ideological conflict. This is a novel, remember, that was supposed to explode upon publication.

Whether the ambition has been realized, I can't judge. Though the book came close to getting representation, I didn't manage to hammer it into the "science thriller" mold that might have excited the agents. It remains a novel of ideas, for better or worse, and it will be up to others to decide if the ideas have merit and/or entertainment value.
The story can no longer be a sly commentary on the .com boom (with biotech replacing software), nor can 1990s xenophobia be the subtext of the book's Muslim police officer, but—to me—the world of γ still feels relevant . . . and even credible in many particulars of its futurism.

Some cosmetic changes to the technology were necessary, after a gap of many years. I had to remove the use of PDA as a verb ("What's a PDA?" you ask), replace "plastic touch-pens" with "styluses," remove a reference to Parental Guidance stickers on teenagers' music albums circa 2016, since I have my own teenager in 2016 who has never bought a physical album; etc. But I kept a few strange artifacts. "ViewPads" and "ViewSheets," from the original draft circa 2000, are probably unnecessary extrapolations. The arcane genetic research could probably be replaced with updated arcane genetic research. Yet I don't think it would be worth anyone's time, especially mine, to reimagine the world of γ from the perspective of 2016. Social dynamics, largely inspired by the L.A. riots of 1992 and an unrelated fight I witnessed on an L.A. bus in 1993, were always more important to the story than a particular technology. If the book holds any interest to the readers of today, the reason will be because these dynamics of race and class are still at work, as perhaps they may always be.