Hitting Tech Sufficiency

I was recently gifted with a Google Chromebook Pixel, which although now two years old is still the most specced-out Chromebook you can get (the version I received has an i7 processor, 16 gigs of ram and a 64GB SSD, as well as a retina-like touchscreen). I was delighted to get it, and can attest to it being an all around lovely laptop, as well as (of course) just about the best Chromebook I’ve come across. It can run Android apps too, which is a bonus, although I don’t find myself actually using that ability much, either on this or the other two Chromebooks I currently have in the house. Be that as it may, if you have a hankering for a Chromebook, the Pixels are still well worth looking into. Google’s not making them anymore, so supplies are limited, but on the other hand you can pick one up these days for about $400, a steep discount from their original pricing (of about $1k).

As much as I like the Pixel (and I do!), one of the things I’m aware of at the moment is that I’m currently in a moment of technological sufficiency, which is to say that I’m at a point where I don’t really have a hankering for any new bit of tech. Before the Pixel arrived I already had the latest Asus Flip Chromebook, which I liked quite a bit and which I took on tour with me, where it performed in an entirely satisfactory manner. My desktop computer is a couple years old now but still near the upper end of things, techwise; as long as it doesn’t explode I’m fine. My cell phone is likewise well-specced and I’m in no rush to upgrade it. Basically, there’s no tech out there in the world I really feel the urge to pick up. I’m good.

This is very weird for me, I should note. There’s usually a laptop or cell phone or graphics card or camera or TV or whatever that I don’t have that I wish I did, and which I’m sorely tempted to get even if I don’t exactly need it (this is what Charlie Stross calls “having to make a saving throw against shiny“). But at the moment: Nope.

I think part of the reason for this is a bit of self-awareness, i.e., no matter what new computer (or phone, or whatever) I get, I’m almost certainly going to use it for the same things I always do — in the case of a laptop, to write emails and occasionally work on a novel (if I’m not at home), and read social media. These are not things which require blazing speeds or massive computing power, which is one reason I’ve become enamored of Chromebooks in the last couple of years; they’re nicely good enough, especially now that I can get models with backlit keyboards. They are so “good enough,” in fact, that at this point (for me, anyway), it becomes increasingly difficult to justify spending hundreds more for a PC or Mac ever again. Maybe if my laptops were my primary computers (i.e., no desktop computer). But they’re not.

Also, I think I might have a little bit of technology fatigue, which is to say at this moment in time there’s nothing so particularly new or innovative in terms of technology that I feel an urge to race out and upgrade. Laptops are sufficiently small and light and capable; their functionality isn’t notably different from what it was five or even ten years ago, at least in terms of how I use them. The most recent attempts to innovate in that area amount to either removing capability (Apple ditching inputs and forcing its users to use dongles) or adding capability of dubious utility (Apple again, with their “Touch Bar”). Likewise, the newest generation of cell phones doesn’t add much to the party for me — again they’re either dropping capability (no headphone jacks? Screw you), or what’s being added doesn’t impress me much.

(Tablets, I’ll note, have dropped entirely off my radar; I loved the Nexus 7 tablet, which was the perfect size for me, but I barely use mine anymore. Likewise the iPad Mini I have, which I got because I’m working on games designed for iOS. What I used tablets for previously are now handled by my phone, which now has a large enough screen, or by my Asus Chromebook, which flips about to make a perfectly serviceable tablet, especially now that it runs Android apps.)

There’s nothing that grabs me, upgrade-wise, so I suspect I’m unlikely to upgrade until my current set of toys break. Which will be soon enough, as tech these days is not made to last. But when it does break, the question will be whether I’ll upgrade, or just… sidegrade, and get tech that is equivalent to what I have now and thus, relatively cheaper because it will no longer be the shiniest of the shinies anymore.

I don’t suspect this state of affairs will last, mind you. I am famously susceptible to new tech toys, and I suspect that soon some as-now-unheralded feature or functionality will presently become indespensible (or will at least feel like it is) and then there I will be, Fry-like, thrusting out a fist of dollars and telling someone to shut up and take my money. But for the moment? Yeah, I’m fine, tech-wise. It’s a weird feeling. But I could get used to it. And so could my wallet.

The Big Idea: Carrie Patel

During the thinking about and writing of The Song of the Dead, author Carrie Patel came to appreciate traffic jams. Why is that? And how did it help in the construction of her novel? Patel is here to tell you.

CARRIE PATEL:

One of my most vivid memories from grad school is of a negotiation exercise my first year. My classmates and I were divided into two teams in which we played researchers competing for a limited supply of a rare coconut. The premise was that we each needed it—and as much as we could get—in order to cure different diseases, and that winning meant having as much of the stuff as possible.

Game on, I thought.

For a half hour, we debated. We discussed the urgency of our research, the number of people we could save, and the benefits we could provide to society. After a civil and well-reasoned discussion, we divided up the coconut supply, and we all stepped back feeling like we’d won.

We’d all lost.

The catch was that one group only needed the fibers, and the other only needed the meat. We could have all gotten the maximum use of our coconuts if we’d only shared our full stories with one another. Instead, we made assumptions and went to battle because the story running through our minds was one of conflict.

If there’s one thing this exercise taught me, it’s that the stories we tell ourselves shape our goals, relationships, and outcomes. And that’s the Big Idea of The Song of the Dead.

A little background. The Recoletta trilogy is about underground cities that rise from the ashes of the Catastrophe, an unspecified historical disaster. To the people who live in the buried cities—Recoletta, Madina, and their neighbors—history is a thing to be feared. It’s a Pandora’s box of human evils, a story about how the wicked nature and dangerous technologies of ancient peoples led to their near-total destruction. Understandably, perhaps, the people of these cities see this history as a dangerous virus, and most of them want nothing to do with whatever story corrupted their ancestors.

For the third novel, I wanted to explore this idea about stories—how they shape people and how they create conflict—on a big, plot-wide scale and on a small, character-focused scale.

Zoomed out, The Song of the Dead was always going to be about societies that had built themselves up around different stories of the Catastrophe and about the conflict that those stories would inevitably rope them into.

That idea felt fresh, relevant, and compelling to me as a writer. There was just one problem: I didn’t even know the story of the Catastrophe. I just knew that it had to be massive. It had to explain the buried cities’ isolation and idiosyncrasies. It had to mean something to the characters in the present of the book.

And it couldn’t be the first thing that came to mind.

So, how do you develop a backstory that simultaneously pays off a mystery, contextualizes your world building, and motivates your current conflict?

Apparently with lots of brainstorming, pages of outlining, and some thoughtful car ride conversations with the husband.

At least there’s one reason to appreciate California traffic.

I won’t spoil anything except to say that I did finally discover the story my story needed, and after dusting my hands off over dozens of Scrivener files, pages of notes, and more than a few false starts, all I had to do was write the novel.

Fortunately, there were characters to help with that.

I wanted to give my series protagonists, Jane Lin and Liesl Malone, the same thorough treatment. Ever since I’d written the outline for Cities and Thrones, I’d wanted to bring these two women into conflict with one another. The challenge was to do that while maintaining them both as reasonable and well-intentioned people.

Fortunately, by the events of The Song of the Dead, they’ve been shaped (hammered, more like) by two very different stories. Each has a different version of the events that have pushed them to the edge, and they begin the novel glaring at each other across the gulf that has grown between them.

The question is, will they be able to step back from that conflict far enough to tell each other those stories, and will they be able to find peace enough for their world?

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The Song of the Dead: Amazon | B&N | Indiebound | Powell’s

Visit Patel’s site. Follow her on Twitter.